Thursday, September 15, 2022

Charts #46: Fed's tightening

We are finally getting back to textbook's environment of risk free rate at 3% after years of QE although it remains to be seen if this can last.

Since Singapore's monetary policy imports rate from the US, do keep buying Singapore T-bills while the interest is still good!

Thursday, September 01, 2022

Singapore Treasury Bills from 1987-2022: Full Analysis

Singapore Treasury bills and bonds (T bills and bonds in short) continue to intrigue me as I studied the recent movements. Things started to get interesting around March 2022 when the US Fed started talking about hiking interest rates. The following table depicts our six month T bill movement - issue date and cut off yield, which is the yield we get when we subscribe, fortnite by fortnite (no gaming pun intended).

  • 20 Jan 0.48%
  • 3 Feb 0.69%
  • 17 Feb 0.76%
  • 3 Mar 0.78%
  • 17 Mar 0.95%
  • 31 Mar 1.22%
  • 13 Apr 1.32%
  • 27 Apr 1.56%
  • 11 May 1.69%
  • 26 May 1.8%
  • 9 Jun 2.04%
  • 23 Jun 2.36%
  • 7 Jul 2.66%
  • 21 Jul 2.93%
  • 4 Aug 2.87%
  • 18 Aug 2.98%
  • 1 Sep 2.99%
As of this writing, 6 month T bill pays 2.99%pa (1.49% over six months). This is risk free. Well, as long as Singapore stands, which I think she should for the next six months. I hope some of you subscribed as previewed in this post c.1 month ago! MAS also issues 1 year T bills but only on a quarterly basis and the latest cut off yields are as follow:
  • 13 Apr 2%
  • 21 Jul 3.1%

Singapore has one the highest home ownership in the world and as such I believe most of us reading this should have a mortgage. Given that mortgage rate is lower 2.99% (about 1.6-2.1% today), we should all draw out maximum mortgage and put into T bills, effective making free money! To illustrate this, if you can borrow at 2% and invest in this, using the 21 Jul 1 year T bill rate of 3.1%, you make 1.1% risk free with no equity. Let's use concrete no.s, say we can borrow $1m from the bank, which is not your capital since you borrowed it, then you buy the 1 year T bill and make 3.1%. After one year, you get back $1.031m, pay the bank $1.02m and voila you just made $11,000 with no capital outlay! 

Okay, you say there is duration mismatch. The mortgage can last 10, 20, 30 years, we cannot guarantee T bills will be at 3.1% for 10, 20, 30 years. The latest issue of our 10 year Gahmen bond has a cut off yield at 2.71% (see below). So technically, it is still doable. In fact, this also works if you can borrow at any kind of facility at 1-2%pa (ie lower than the cut off yield).

Now that we know this wonderful trick, the next relevant question would naturally be - so how much did our Singapore T bills yield over time? Here's the shocking conclusion. Read on. 

The MAS publishes all the data on T bills and bonds since 1987. Anyone can download all the data via the link below. The average 6 month T bill cut off yield has been 2.07% since 1987. While it has been mostly uninteresting at below 1% over the last decade or so, no thanks to QE, it did hit 3.05% in 2015 (and now 2.99%). In Jun 2000, right after the dot-com crash, it was 4.74%!

We spent 16 years discussing on this infosite about investing, taking risk and trying to make 8%pa. We all know someone, aunties or uncles, or even our own parents rushing to banks every few months to hunt for the highest fixed deposit rate and park money there to earn 1.x%pa. But since 1987, the Singapore government provided this ultimate instrument that can make on average 2%pa and in "good times" 3-4%pa. If you can borrow at 1+%pa which most of us could, we can make free money at infinity%pa. 

So, I am shutting down this infosite, thanks for reading folks! (Young Wonder Woman saying goodbye below)

Just kidding.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Charts #45: Food inflation

 This chart from The Economist says it all.

Also, we are running out of raw material for our food. Malaysia's export ban of fresh chicken to Singapore was quite worrisome a few months back (see below).

Well, fortunately, we didn't reach this stage. But chicken rice no longer cost $3 and I think we are on our way to find hawker chicken rice cost as much Chatterbox's chicken rice (when it first came out).

Monday, August 01, 2022

Invest in Risk Free Singapore T Bills!

Treasury bills or T bills are short term bonds issued by the government for periods of less than 1 year. For the longest time, they only yield basis points due to global quantitative easing (QE) which has drove global interest rates to zero. But in recent weeks, yield on Singapore’s T bills has shot up with the Federal Reserve raising interest rates and our T bills now yield close to 3%! 

In financial textbooks, we always talked about the risk free rate. This usually referred to the country's ten year bond yield which was usually at 3-4% in the good old days and this was the basis of all investments because risky assets cannot yield less than the risk free rate. During the great QE over the last 12-13 years, risk free rate went to zero and hence anything yielding 1-2% becomes interesting. This was especially so when disruptive companies promised to grow to the moon, increase their revenue 100x and vowed to change the world. Speculators rushed in where value investors feared to tread.  

Now that risk free rate is back to the textbook level of 3%, there is a lot more downside for such stocks with minuscule earnings trading at 50x PER (this translates to earnings yield of 2% which is lower than the risk free rate now and hence makes no sense for value investors). So, if you want to buy Tesla's stock at current 100x PER, maybe you should buy Singapore T bills instead.

The only way it is justifiable to buy Tesla based on the risk free yield vs Tesla's earnings yield comparison is that Tesla grows its earnings more than 10x from here which means that the future PER is closer to 10x (ie earnings yield of 10%). Even so, current share price has already factored in this scenario, so Tesla has to do more than that for its market cap to go to USD2trn (another 110% upside from its current USD900bn market cap). This is not to say that it cannot be done, just very difficult. Having said that, this valuation math also didn't work when Tesla was USD100bn going to USD1trn in market cap. So speculators in Tesla did make a lot of money so far!  

T bills is a good way to park any excess cash that you have because it comes back soon, in 6 to 12 months. In Singapore, you can only buy through the three banks: DBS, OCBC and UOB and no relationship manager will recommend this because they earn nothing. The process is also deliberately cumbersome to discourage buying but you just have to push on. You will be asked to choose either competitive or non-competitive bids and a huge warning would pop up to say that if you choose non-competitive, you might lose money - which could be true with negative interest rates, but not today.

The last bid closed on 21 July and the details are in the table above. If you chose the non-competitive bid, you would have gotten 100% allocation at 2.93%, which is the cut-off yield. Non-competitive bid is 40% of each issuance and unless the amount of non-competitive bid exceeds 40% which is c.SGD2bn, most likely than not, you will get 100% allocation. As for competitive bid, you will dictate the yield you want, but risk getting nothing if your bid is higher than the cut-off yield.

Note: this is 2.93% for 12 months so you only get half the money (ie 1.465%) over 6 months.

Looking at this 6 month T bill at almost 3%pa, some of you might have figured this out - the Singapore yield curve is inverted with 6 month T bill and also the two year bond at higher yields vs the 10 year Singapore bond at 2.7% as of this writing. While the academic theory is not clear, inverted yield curve usually means that a recession is coming. This means that things can get ugly, you may not have income or you need to help someone close who needs money, so you do not know when you need cash. As such, don’t put everything into this one basket. Well, recession aside, inflation is looming and money in the bank is losing value. So if we can claw back 3%, we should seize the day! The next T bill auction closes 4 Aug. See you at the ATM!

Huat Ah!

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Thoughts #28: Price of a Human Being

While researching for another earlier post, I found this - someone tried to calculate the price of a human being by amalgamating what each and every organ can fetch in the black market. It's USD45m according to the Medical Futurist.

We can put price tags on everything but intrinsic value is not price. The value of a human being is up to us to create and is always far greater whatever price tag whoever wants to put on.

Thursday, July 07, 2022

2022 SG Dividend List

We are at a good time to look at the annual dividend list again and as market cycle goes, we are back in the doldrums and therefore see a lot more names just in our beloved little red dot. The criteria have to be added so that we can down to a manageable list.

For the first time in a long while, I used the PE cap to limit the number of names. I put a cap at 20x meaning that any stock trading at more than 20x will be cut out. Surprisingly, I still get so many names that we need have two lists below (ranked by market cap). This year, we see a lot of property names and new names which, to be honest, I have not studied and would not be able to comment.

At the top of the market cap range, we start with Thai Beverage at close to SGD18bn market cap. I have owned this name for a while and I believe this is perhaps one of the rare compounders we can find on SGX. The numbers speak for themselves, double digits margins and double digit ROEs. I would argue that at 16x price earnings, this name is not expensive. Top Glove of Malaysia is another superb company but the numbers do look strange with ROE over 100% and dividend over 20%. That said, we know its strengths and kudos to the managers who brought the company to such global success over time. Alas, both of these strong names are not home grown Singapore companies. 

The second part of the list goes down the market cap and again, there are many unfamiliar names. But one familiar one did stand out - Bukit Sembawang. This is a well-known property play currently trading below book but with ROA at 10% and ROE at 13.5%. It also offers a decent dividend yield of 6.5%. On surface, it definitely looks like a good bargain. Perhaps someone will take them out like what happened with SPH and SPH Reit.

Next up, let's see if we can find more interesting names in the other markets!

As usual, here's the past lists:

2020 Dividend List
2019 Dividend List
2018 Dividend List - Part 4
2018 Dividend List - Part 3
2018 Dividend List - Part 2
2018 Dividend List - Part 1
2017 Oct Dividend List - Part 2
2017 Oct Dividend List - Part 1

Huat Ah!

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

SPH and SPH Reit gone!

5 July 2022 Update: Apologies for the mis-information and the anxiety that this post might have caused. While SPH is not longer around, SPH Reit is not delisted and was last traded today at $0.90. Cuscaden's chain offer would only privatize the company if it managed to buy more than 90% of outstanding shares. Since the lowball offer ($0.9372) was unattractive, it only acquired c.62%.

I have kept this post for readers who may still be interested. Will be updating on this name in the weeks ahead now that we have an actual bid at $0.9372 (which means at 15-20% discount from this price, this name will have really good margin of safety and worth taking a very close look) and there should be further developments.

Today is the last day you can trade SPH Reit. This was a stock I owned since its IPO and it is sad that I have to sell it the way I did. It was definitely not trading at my intrinsic value but I have not choice, unfortunately. In Singapore, minority shareholders continue to suffer when stocks are taken private cheaply.

For the uninitiated, the saga began around March with SPH Reit's parentco SPH embroiled in a bidding war sparked between Keppel Corp and Cuscaden Peak. Cuscaden Peak is a vehicle owned by Singapore #1 shrewd businessman Ong Beng Seng who has strong connection with Temasek. The actual shareholding is a bit complicated and I have copied the description from Shentonwire (pic below):

To cut the story short, Cuscaden won and SPH, Singapore Press Holdings, publisher of The Straits Times, was taken private last month, ending its life as a public blue chip company on the SGX. Some shareholders took umbrage that it was taken out at SGD2.40 while most long term investors would remember this stock should be valued closer to SGD4.00, which was where it traded for donkey years.

SPH Reit was then bidded to be taken private at $0.9372 as part of a chain offer. The latest NAV of the company was $0.92 so at face value, we cannot say it was taken out at a cheap price. But, considering that rent is skyrocketing in sunny Singapore as a result of global inflation and further considering the stock's IPO price was $1 back in 2013 and the current cap rate (4.5-6%) of its five properties are pretty, which means it is not expensive (see pic below), well, I guess we have to admit Ong Beng Seng got the better bargain.

It is very difficult to have win-win transactions in life. Some people live through their lives believing it doesn't exist. Someone has to win and the other party has to lose. While that is not true, it might be so in this case. We, as minority shareholders, did not get our fair exit, with the backdrop of the current worldly state of affairs. Firstly, inflation rate is spiking and we know that properties are one of the best asset classes to own during an inflationary environment. Secondly, we all know that rents in Singapore are going through the roof, so we should see property prices soaring. 

Lastly, Paragon, the iconic Orchard property, valued at SGD2.6bn, cap rate of 4.5% seemed to be at a discount. Pre-covid, it was valued closer to SGD2.8bn. Coincidentally, the market cap of SPH Reit is also at the takeover market cap of SGD2.6bn, which means that the rest of the properties come free. Of course that is simplistic because we did not take into the account of the debt. If we do that, then we come back to the NAV of $0.92 which, gut-feel wise, also seemed cheap. 

So, are minority shareholders being short-changed?

The short answer, I would say is yes. But as a long term shareholder though, I have also benefited from collecting the c.5% dividend over the last 9 years. So this meant that I have collected 45% of my capital or c.$0.40-$0.44 which meant that I still made a decent profit selling to Ong Beng Seng at $0.9372 considering the dividend gains. It is said that more than half of long term investing gains come from dividends and in this case, that is arguably true. 

Unfortunately, for recent buyers, they might be taken out at a cheap price and there is really no good way to fight back. Perhaps Singapore needs to see its share of activist investors who can fight for minority rights and stop corporate raiders from taking listed companies out cheaply.

For interested readers, you can also read about CK Tang

Thursday, June 02, 2022

Books #18: Security Analysis - Part 1

I finally finished this seminal book after reading for almost three years. It was simply too dry and too painful so I used it mostly as a sleep catalyst: i.e. I read it when I cannot sleep. Usually, I don't get pass a couple of pages which was why it took three years. 

To be honest the book was marginally helpful. It was written so many years ago that a lot of the case studies are now unrelatable and the whole section on fixed income was simply too technical. I can understand why Benjamin Graham wrote The Intelligent investor. So that his philosophy can be more easily understood by to the layperson. It was definitely a better read.

That said, the book was seminal because it introduced all the original value investing concepts. It described the original thinking about stocks, it popularized valuation methodologies, how we should look at financial records for at least 7-10 years and how we should think about management of companies. 

The biggest revelation was that most of the lessons learnt about financial shenanigans that were applicable then were applicable now. Human nature doesn't change and that is always at the crux of investing. In the end, investing is the ultimate battle of wits against a million other chess players. Here's a quote by Seth Klarman that just rings truth all over:

The real secret to investing is that there is no secret to investing. Every important aspect of value investing has been made available to the public many times over, beginning in 1934 with the first edition of Security Analysis. That so many people fail to follow this timeless and almost foolproof approach enables those who adopt it to remain successful. The foibles of human nature that result in the mass pursuit of instant wealth and effortless gain seem certain to be with us forever. So long as people succumb to this aspect of their natures, value investing will remain, as it has been for 75 years, a sound and low risk approach to successful long-term investing. 

Next up, we look at some of the original valuation methodologies and financial shenanigans!

Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Stock Market and the World in 2022-2023

2022 has become one of the most extraordinary year ever. The stock market reached all-time highs as we tallied 6m deaths (condolences to all the bereaved families) and Russia decided to start a war. A further 10m people were forced out of their homes as refugees, while people in sunny Singapore happily go for overseas tours. Some even decide to visit Ukraine to proselytize! (Dear Singaporeans, please don't do that...) It is a sad year and I am sorry to say, I actually only have more bad news.

Courtesy of and Google Image search

There are three key topics in 2022-2023 which we will discuss today and they are all bad:

1. Inflation

2. Bear market and valuations

3. Regime change

We have seen inflation in recent months and we are going to see more inflation like we have never seen before. This is a new experience for most of us and it is not pleasant. Essentially, our money in the bank is losing value but it is not visible. $100,000 doesn't actually become $90,0000 but effectively, it does because prices of things we want to buy are going up. The geo-political landscape is making things worse.

Wars are inflationary because everything that is used in the war does not create value add but takes away useful resources that can propel the economy. The Russian-Ukraine war in particular is causing commodities prices to skyrocket and disrupting global manufacturing supply chain especially in autos and semiconductors. But the repercussions can go far and wide. For example, prices of eggs in Singapore also skyrocketed (for reasons unclear to me now). All this happened while the West was trying tame 7-8% inflation, which has not happened for a long time. 

This is a big deal and this is bad. We have never experienced 7-8% inflation for more than 40 years. 2-3% inflation, yes and it is manageable. Our wage growth usually beats that and everyone is happy but when inflation is that high, lower income families may not see income growth covering cost inflation. For middle and upper income households, people are also seeing their luxury comfort slipping away. Some cannot change iPhone every year now because it's literally causing a kidney for a donor (see below).

Kidney donors are paid $2,000

Air ticket prices are rising, so that means less overseas travel even as we open up. Car and COE prices are also going up. In general, it will be just more expensive to live. Corporates are also not doing great. Wage inflation is all the rage now, banks and prominent startups in the US are forking out $100,000 to get fresh grads (It's also a talent war out there). Manufacturing companies see raw material cost increasing and those who can afford to pass it on do so, further exacerbating inflation, those who cannot take a hit to the margins. That is not good for share prices which brings us to the stock market discussion.

S&P500 as of May 2022

We are probably at the start of the bear market. The S&P500 peaked at 4,766 and has dropped 15% since then. The headwinds are so strong that it is hard to see how the market can still go up. We have valuations still at very high levels but topline growth is slowing. The biggest worry though, is not that. It is the US interest rate. For those who studied this either on this infosite or in school or in finance theory, you might remember that valuations are, by and large, determined by interest rates. In textbook language, this is the risk-free rate, which usually meant the 10 year government bond yield. 

The reason why 50x PER was ok for a while was that risk free rate was below 1%. So when that happened, equity risk premium was also compressed and investors were ok with 50x PER which is roughly 2% earnings yield. The alternative was to buy US Treasury bonds at 1%, or some boring companies' bonds at 3%, which wasn't that palatable. The cherry on the cake was, of course, 50x internet companies always put in some spectacular growth story, so investors just piled up to buy.

But now, the story has changed. If the 10 year US Treasury bond yield is going to 2.5%, you can no longer justify 50x PER, cherry or not. Calculating the earnings yield again, say the equity risk premium is also 2.5%, we are talking about 5% earnings yield for the market which translates to 20x PER. So in this new regime, a sexy growth stock could trade at 25-30x but 50x is definitely, a stretch. That is one key reason why Netflix and some of the hot stocks of past 5 years collapsed.

In the stock market, every 10-20 years, we see a regime change. We all heard about the Nifty Fifties and the bear market in the late 60s of the era past. In recent times, the late 1990s were led by the internet stocks. Then they collapsed and new leaders from Asia emerged. This was the boom of China that also drove the commodities supercycle. It collapsed with the GFC and we entered the current regime around 2011-2012. The first half was driven by recovery and false starts - remember Brexit and Grexit and the shadow banks in China? The second half was driven by the FANGs. We are now at the bloody ending in this horror movie (maybe The Shining and it's not going to end well). The FANGs have all declined and Netflix, the N here, fell 80% from its peak. This is a watershed moment.

Some of the other FANGs might do well, some might not, it is hard to say. It is probably prudent to trim some holdings if you have and wait for a better entry. In the broader sense, we are in another era now(改朝换代了), we are now in a bear market and cheap valuations, which has long been forgotten as the true compass for investors will now be ever more important. 2022-23 will be turbulent and we just have to wait and see how far this decline can take us before things get settled down.

So meanwhile, keep calm, keep liquidity, stay vigilant and stay safe!

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Chart #44: Taking stock of COVID-19

Two and half years ago, we could never have seen this coming. Over 500m infected and 6m deaths. 

Google screenshot

The number of deaths annualized is 3x the no. of people dying from flu (300-600k according to WHO)

May the Force be with us all!

Friday, April 22, 2022

Ray Dalio's Power Principle

I have read many things written by Ray Dalio and his thought process simply never fails to amaze me. He has published a new book which I have not read but cannot wait to. He continues to think and write despite his age (72 and going strong). The following is something he wrote recently when commenting about the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Having power is good because power will win over arguments, rules and laws all the time. When push comes to shove, those who have the power will either enforce their interpretation of the rules and laws or overturn them to get what they want. It is important to respect power because it is not smart to fight a war that will produce more pain than reward: it is preferable to negotiate the best settlement possible (that is unless one wants to be a martyr, which is usually for stupid ego reasons rather than for sensible strategic reasons). It is also important to use power wisely. Using power wisely does not mean forcing others to give you what you want ie bullying them. It is the recognition that generosity and compromise are powerful forces for producing win-win relationships, which are fabulously more rewarding that lose-lose relationships. In other words, it is often the case that using "hard power" is not ideal and that using "soft power" is preferable.

This paragraph is so powerful that I felt compelled to write it down here so that it will be part of my infosite and I hope to be able to practice what is written here as well as to be aware who in my circle is using hard power for stupid ego reasons. 

We have all seen bosses enforcing their interpretation of the rules and we have all seen colleagues using power for stupid ego reasons. Most often, we are powerless to stop them at that moment. But we should learn from their mistakes and perhaps make records to note them down such that one day, we might be able to turn the tables against them.

For example:

1. Discretely deciding to use company's budget for meals by using power over secretaries to setup the meal with counterparty and colleagues, bypassing higher authorities.

2. Forcing the deal team to kill the deal by re-interpreting the criteria for new investment ideas which fit a pre-created framework. The deal would have passed the criteria but the re-interpretation meant that it now could not. 

3. Using power to decide the fate of interns despite the verdict still being processed by the rest of the team and feeling happy about "playing god" over interns.

Yes, power abuses.

Back to Ray Dalio, I think the quote above list out all the important tenets about how we should use power. People who play with power are up to no good. They are political, egoistic and generally do not add value. So be careful with people who abuses power and also the companies that have these people. 

Here's a few likeable timeless quotes about power:

Experience have shown that even under the best forms of government, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny - Thomas Jefferson

With power comes the abuse of power. And where there are bosses, there are crazy bosses. It's nothing new. - Judd Rose

Those who have true power share it, while those who hunger power abuse it - Royalton Ambrose

Friday, April 08, 2022

Tobin's Q: The q ratio

It has been a long while since we discussed financial ratios. The last post was more than 10 years ago (although it was edited in 2016). Today we hope to discuss Tobin's Q and how it can help us in our fundamental analysis. First let's define what the heck is this ratio about.

From Wikipedia:

Tobin's q (also known as q ratio and Kaldor's v) is the ratio between a physical asset's market value and its replacement value. It was first introduced by Nicholas Kaldor in 1966 in his article "Marginal Productivity and the Macro-Economic Theories of Distribution: Comment on Samuelson and Modigliani".

It was popularized by James Tobin, a Nobel laureate who did creative and extensive work expenditure decisions, employment, production and prices in finance. He famously stated:

1) the numerator, is the market valuation: the going price in the market for exchanging existing assets.

2) the denominator, is the replacement or reproduction cost: the price in the market for newly produced commodities. We believe that this ratio has considerable macroeconomic significance and usefulness, as the nexus between financial markets and markets for goods and services.

There are various formula for Tobin's Q and one of which is the basic price-to-book ratio. But the version that I think makes the most sense is the following:

Courtesy of Investopedia

There is a full explanation on investopedia so I will not go into the details here. As with price-to-book, the concept is that a company's market value (i.e. stock price or market cap) should approximate its replacement cost and therefore the ratio should always be close to one. Alas, as stock prices go, it is everything but. 

Today, price-to-book ratios usually go into teens for good companies (which is the usual level for price-to-earnings in the past) and in most analysis, it is no longer a useful measure. What is more important could be free cashflow, price-to-earnings (the starting point is usually teens and we try to determine whether 30x is too expensive) and growth rate.

Tobin Q can also be used for the entire stock market. Since 1945, the Federal Reserve publishes a quarterly Z.1 Statistical Release which provides the raw data for the q ratio's calculation. There is also data using different sources before that. For more details, please refer to the following salient update from Advisor Perspectives: 

What is important with such ratios usually is to compare the numbers across its history. The following chart shows that the Tobin's Q ratio is at its highest level ever. This is even higher than the level reached during the dotcom bubble for the entire US market. There is argument that the raw data understates the denominator, as such, the ratio rarely dipped below 1x over the last 20 years, but still, we cannot say the market is cheap or fairly price. We are quite far from that.

Courtesy of Advisor Perspectives

A lot of luminaries are saying we are in the mother of all bubbles, this ratio is another datapoint confirming the danger. It pays to be prudent now. Be fearful when others are greedy, but this time, cash may not be the safest hiding place, so we may need to diversify. It might be worthwhile to look for companies trading below 1x their Tobin's Q ratio and many other asset classes including gold, crypto or hard assets. 

Friday, March 25, 2022

Thoughts #27: Scams and Counterparty Risks

Human civilization has progressed so far that we sometimes give a lot of the benefit of the doubt to be trusting. We buy bottled water, packaged food trusting it is all good. We buy things off the internet like nobody's business today, trusting that our purchased goods will arrive at our doorsteps tomorrow or at worst, in a few days. 

It was not always like this. We have become too trusting and there are scammers out there who are getting really good at scamming in this unique era of ours. Scammers existed throughout history and we simply must always be vigilant. Our parents and older friends and relatives are also usually more vulnerable.

This post is a reminder that sometimes the most important risk is simply the other party or platform across the table. It could also be people we are supposedly working together with. If we have a counterparty who is helping to transact, can we trust him or her? Are we using a reputable broker? Is the Bitcoin exchange setup certified by the MAS? Can we trust the property agent, or the supposed seller/owner of the property? These are simple things that we should make sure that we do not overlook. 

Scams are also everywhere. Some are easy to spot but others may not be so. Bernie Madoff structured his Ponzi Scheme for almost 40 years and no one found out because he was so good at covering his tracks. Jho Low pulled off the 1MDB by registering similar sounding company names. Internet scams are everywhere, so it's better to just buy from the big platforms rather than to try to save 20%.

Needless to say, when we are buying big ticket items, like a luxury watch, a car, or a house, then it makes even more sense to be beware of scams and counterparty risks. We need to double and triple check that everything is in order. A good friend shared this with me some time back:

"When you are about the part with your money, think again and double check. Pay half or 1/3 first if necessary. Things will change when money has been transferred"

Caveat Emptor!

Friday, March 11, 2022

Books #17: Value Investors by Ronald Chan

I read an interesting book in 2021 simply called, "The Value Investors" by Ronald Chan. Well the full title is apparently - The Value Investors: Lessons from the World's Top Fund Managers

This book is unique as it introduced the many value investors that we may know but had never been featured prominently. People like Irving Kahn, Walter Schloss and a few Asian value investors including Singapore's own Teng Ngiek Leng, founder of Target Asset Management. 

There were many snippets and many lessons. I find the Asian lessons particularly useful as I could relate better.

Teng shared the importance to be flexible and be contrarian. This was echoed by Howard Marks who famously coined Second Level Thinking, which needs to be different but better. But Teng was able to connect that with his Asian experience, which brings the point home in a unique perspective for me. Another Asian value shared about the importance of knowledge and focus. We can only capture opportunities with knowledge which we have gained with a lot of experience and focus which is required because the opportunity will pass quickly in the markets. Otherwise, opportunities are simply easily missed.

One of the best quotes was from another Asian investor:

I believe that every human being has an artistic gene and in his or her lifetime can create at least one masterpiece that is globally competitive. However, to become a professional, you need to replicate your talent again and again if you are to have more than one masterpiece. It is the same as investing. You can be passionate about it but if you want to become a professional investor, you need to develop a system and have the talent to find good investments repeatedly.

Overall, a great read, do pick it up in 2022!

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Ukrainian War and Peace

A few hours ago, Russia decided to do the unthinkable which is to invade Ukraine when the world is still nursing itself from the disruption caused by the pandemic. It was reported that Russian forces poured into Ukraine from multiple locations and lives had already been lost on the battlefields. Global markets collapsed with major European markets falling 5-6% as we speak. Russia's own stock market fell 30%!

Oil prices which went negative $40 last year at the height of the pandemic is now at a multi year high of $105. This is the crazy world that we now live in. Imagine if we had bought oil at -$40 last year and now we can sell at +$100! How does the return calculation even work?

Meanwhile, individual stocks are badly hit. In Singapore, index names like banks fell as global investors take risks off their portfolios. Air travel related names got their second punch in the face (the first being the pandemic) and fell a good 4-5%. Food Empire, with its core business in Russia fell close to 6%. Only oil related names did well given the rally in crude.

It is unclear what is Putin's play here. Does he want to leave a legacy, be remembered as the Russian leader who united Ukraine and the ex-USSR nations? Or he simply wants to use this opportunity to stir shit, play geo-politics and stay in office for as long as possible? Or is it really pre-emptive because if Ukraine joins NATO, then Russia will see dark days with NATO at its doorstep and surely he doesn't want to be judge by history as doing nothing when that happened. 

However, it is said that this war will cause at least 50,000 lives. Already, hundreds of soldiers and a few civilians have died. So what is the math here? 50,000 lives and thousands of Ukrainians and Russians suffering and all the sanctions that will come with the invasion (which will cause even more suffering for the rest of Russia) is worth Ukraine not joining NATO and Putin's legacy not getting tarnished?

Well, let's leave the moral questions aside for now. What can investors do about the current situation?

As with most crises, this would turn out to be a buying opportunity if we have the stomach for the volatility ahead. We have gone too far down the QE addiction that any decline will be supported by governments to devalue fiat currencies, thereby inflating the values of stocks, investments and other assets. However, if war breaks out in the same magnitude of WWI, then we are in a different regime. We shall revisit this doomsday scenario later.

STI's stock reaction today

It is worth noting that quality stocks are not falling as much as the high beta names. For example, amongst the European stocks that I track, weak names like Bayer and Rolls Royce are collapsing while stronger names like Diageo and Adidas are holding up much better. In Singapore, similarly stronger names like Singtel and SGX did not fall as much as Venture and the Jardine names (see table above). It also seemed that we are not seeing real capitulation yet, so the bottom may come only next week or the week after. 

This is a good reminder that we should always stick with strength and quality. These stocks are boring but precisely in times like this that we don't lose sleep agonizing over why they are falling like rocks. Although I must emphasize that the heydays of Singtel could be over. It is on its way to become a dumbpipe. Also, I did recommend Jardine Cycle and Carriage as a holding but it's not in the same league as SGX and Diageo, for sure. So, sometimes we just have to stomach the volatility that comes with some of these higher beta plays.

Of course, if this escalates to full blown war, then no amount of buying on dips can help. I have held the view that we always face a remote possibility that all that we know about modern finance and money can be gone one day. During the GFC, we came close to that. I am talking about the breakdown of the global financial system, all our savings in the banks gone and fiat currencies no longer hold any meaning. If this war escalates to something like WWI, then that nightmare scenario comes back.

When fiat money loses meaning like Venezula's Bolivar 
- being folded into swans to be sold in USD

Therefore, I have always advocated that we should hold some tangible assets like gold, luxury watches, jewellery and things that are outside today's financial system that can retain value. Hence I also have changing thoughts on Bitcoin which I hope to blog about as well. However, Bitcoin bought at crypto exchanges are still part of the system so you do need to get the Bitcoin into a cold wallet and keep it safe. The other important asset is real estate. But you need to have at least two. One to stay in and the other to sell when savings run out in a protracted war.

Let's hope we don't get there and let's pray for the people in Ukraine now. I am sure Putin is not thinking of escalating the situation to a world war and let's hope the world can find some resolution and avert this nightmare and we can look back in a year's time and feel smart that we bought into the market courageously next week, or even this week.

Huat Ah!

Monday, February 14, 2022

Revisiting SIA Engineering

SIA Engineering (SIAEC), together with its parentco, has been badly hit by the pandemic. Its share price collapsed from S$3-4 levels to S$2-2.5 today. Years ago, I wrote an analysis with a bear case scenario that determined that the intrinsic value should be S$3.5 given that it will still earn S$200m of free cashflow (FCF) annually in a "downturn". My bull case has an intrinsic value of S$5 supported by annual free cashflow of S$250-350m!

SIA Engineer's five year share price

Well, the pandemic threw everything out of the window. SIAEC went into losses last year although it did continue to generate FCF, amazingly. This was S$150m in FY2020 (not to far off from my S$200m!) and S$80m for the first half of FY2021. So if we can get pandemic out of the way in 2022, then this can really be an interesting pandemic recovery play! But this is not post to gloat about the accuracy of my numbers. I am still in red by about 30% given my entry price was above $3. This is another "lesson learnt" post. 

So what can we learn from this episode?

The first lesson, which has been said but not easily executable, was to cut loss or trim. When the pandemic broke out and all aviation names would be in trouble, there were opportunities to trim but I did nothing. I was cowering my head in the sand because it was too painful to face the situation and think. I should have written this post back then and come to the simple conclusion that trimming will give me firepower to buy more later.

Instead, I did other silly things are trimming winners and cutting other stocks that are less well-loved (only to see them rebound 100%). Yes, this name is one of my favorite, a rare Singapore stock. I couldn't bear to cut. This is the analyst's cardinal sin - do not fall in love with your stock. This is the second lesson.

Accelerating transformation!

Okay. Now that we have learnt our lessons, it is pointless the dwell on the past. It's time to look forward while remaining vigilant on how we can reshape our portfolios (the consistent message from SIAEC's investor materials!). There are two points to discuss: SIAEC's management and the future of aircraft maintenance.

This pandemic has reiterated the point that SIAEC's management is very good. They managed to steer the company into minimal losses and stayed FCF positive. Both the Chairman and CEO are recently appointed and yet they were able to lead decisively through the pandemic. As such, it means that the DNA of the firm is simply strong, capable of making the right decisions more often than not, allowing the firm to navigate the pandemic better than others. 

The future of aircraft maintenance is harder to determine. Before the pandemic struck, one school of thought postulated that maintenance is in structural decline. Technology has improved and there is little need for expensive checks. More downtime means less time to fly passengers around. Well, with the pandemic, the trajectory has changed. There could be a strong recovery first before we talk about decline. But we also know air travel will not decline over the long run. The pandemic can stop us for two years, three years but not ten, fifteen years. Just look at Singaporeans traveling all over world the first chance we got!

Recovery in sight but there is a range of uncertainty!

SIAEC's chart above showed management's view of the recovery trajectory. From this, we can tell that management is thoughtful about their business while the future remains uncertain. While passenger traffic can grow, maintenance could be a different story. The saving grace is that SIAEC has JVs all over the world generating c.S$4bn of revenue cumulatively (via its JVs and its own businesses on an annual basis) and was instrumental in its strong performance during the pandemic. So, even if the whole industry goes into decline, SIAEC can continue to gain share. 

But let's not get too excited. Remember the cardinal sin? There is a recovery in sight but it will take a lot for SIAEC to go to S$5. After five years and losing a few thousand dollar and a little wiser, the new range of IV could be closer to $3-3.5. This is derived using FCF of S$150m and giving it 20x and add its S$500m on its balance sheet, its intrinsic value is c.S$3.5bn. With its share count of 1.12bn, this works out to be S$3.1. Using more optimistic no.s would put that to S$3.5. So we have 40-60% upside while the downside should be $1.6 (-40%) at the height of the pandemic. 

I will be taking profit when it hits $3-3.5. 

Happy Valentine's Day! Huat Ah!

Tuesday, February 01, 2022

Charts #43: The World

I check in with visual capitalist once in a while. I would recommend all investors do the same. This chart is worth scrutinizing and see how it will change 10 to 20 years from now.

Jim Rogers famously said the 21st Century belongs to Asia. Well, look like we still need to grow. We are counting on India now!

Do check out the visual capitalist, they are awesome!

Happy Chinese New Year, huat ah!

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Books #16: The Man Who Solved the Market

The Man Who Solved the Market is one of the best books I have read in 2021. This is the story of Jim Simons, founder of Renaissance Technologies, the world's most successful and most secretive quant fund. Even after the book is published, nobody knows exactly how Renaissance made so much money. The table below from the book says it all.

Jim Simons vs all gurus

These no.s are net of fees and the annualized returns before fees are above 50%, which means doubling the capital every 18 months or so. When so much money is being made so fast, it is no wonder the whole Renaissance team doesn't want anyone else to know the secret sauce nor are they interested in sharing. 

So we can only speculate how things actually work.

The details are scant. The book shared a couple of facts:

1. You need a lot of data for quant models to work and as such there are thousands of trades implemented at any point. Every trade is analyzed. It took decades before the team perfected their trading wins.

2. Trades at tested using mathematical / quantitative models, looking for correlations and robustness. Trades are based on math theories that may not have anything to do with economics or business fundamentals. Renaissance doesn't look for relevance or explanations.

It works because there are always anomalies that continue because humans are simply not rational. One of the most simple ones are traders and fund managers closing trades at the end of week or month, Renaissance takes advantage of that and reap the small returns by taking the other side. But most of time, according to people quoted in the book, they cannot explain fundamentally why some trades work, but that is okay.

The other revelation is that only slightly more than 50% of the trades are profitable. Although it is not stated in the book, it means that one the most important rule in trading - cutting losses, works. I learnt it while reading about the turtle traders. Their rule: as long as you cut loss at say 2% and let your profits run at double of that i.e. at 4% and above, you can win even if you only win 50% of the time. 

Besides getting the taste of the secret sauce, or rather more of a whiff of smelling it, what is also interesting is how the book weaved the whole history of the financial markets for the general reader. It talked about the turtle traders, the 1987 Oct crash, George Soros vs the Bank of England, LTCM, a few flash crashes caused by quants over the last two decades, needless to mention - the GFC and all the other important financial moments over the last 60-70 years. 

That was really just nostalgic for me and perhaps very educational for new students of finance.

It is worth noting that LTCM tried to do what Jim Simons did and blew up. So, in essence, Jim was the successful LTCM and when he succeeded, he stay hidden so that his team can continue to reap the profits from the anomalies. There is some value in maintain secrecy when you do have an edge as exemplified by Renaissance, KFC (Colonel Sanders' secret recipe), Coca Cola and famously in Japan: FANUC, the company that invented the numerical controllers for machine tools and robots.

The last bit of the book talks about how Renaissance employees managed to influence politics. Notably, one of the key staff allegedly supported Trump and got him into the Oval Office using his money and influence. It is a testament that big money is so powerful that it can decide politics and impact our lives.

Sunday, January 02, 2022

COVID-19 to Omicron: Three Years On

When the pandemic broke out in 2019, we had no idea how crazy this could get. I have always been a fairly optimistic person and I thought we should be done in 12 months, if not 18 months. The world will quickly revert to normal because humans are creatures of habit and we like to go back to our old ways of lives as soon as we can. This is why losing weight is so difficult and why we cannot really change and become something we are not. 

We are entering the third year into the pandemic now and things are not looking optimistic. New habits are now being formed which may replace old ones permanently. For instance, we may not need to meet everyone face-to-face going forward. Zoom or virtual meetings can easily become say 60% of all our meetings and old style phonecalls may still make up 20%. So the last 20% of face-to-face meetings will be saved for the most important, most precious counterparties.

The big question is whether we will still fly as we used to. When the pandemic first broke, the airline industry quickly made a prediction: we will only get back to 2019's level of passenger volume by 2025. This was based on the experience from the 9-11 attack back in 2001. At first, I didn't want to believe that. We are so used to flying, how can that be true? Three years on, it now seemed likely, or perhaps, it could take even longer, since we are still only at 40-50% of 2019's levels.

Flight traffic comparison - courtesy of Flightrader24

This does not mean we will not travel anymore. It's the same as zoom or webex. We will save up for the best. We will still travel for leisure for sure. That's the first thing Singaporeans did! We are all not in Singapore now having not being able to travel for the last two years. Business travel should revert to some kind of new normal. For some, it could one less trip per year i.e. dropping for 4 to 3. For frequent flyers, it could be 10 to 8. But I believe, over time, we will surpass the previous peak. It is just whether it's 2025 or 2030. 

It may be just numbers (of years) to most of us, but to the airline industry, it's big difference. Our beloved carrier SQ or Singapore Airlines (SIA), continues to burn around S$300m every quarter and if it is going to drag on, they will need money again (it raised S$8 billion last year). Similarly, aviation related plays will continue to be affected. It is amazing how SIA is now S$5 after a massive 50% dilution. At one point it was even close to S$6 which was just a tad away from the share price (S$6.4) before the dilution! How can the stock be diluted half revert to its old price in a matter of months, when the pandemic that caused the whole situation is still with us? Sometimes the market just doesn't make sense.

SQ continues to burn money
As such, my belief is that SQ is overvalued now, even if we actually start to recover now from COVID-19, we may not have enough margin of safety for this name. But for other SG stocks, there could be. One name that comes to mind is Jardine Cycle and Carriage, which I have also discussed previously. It has been badly hit by the pandemic and has not rebounded. Partially because it is operating in Indonesia, an emerging country will limited bargaining power for vaccines, medicines and with its domestic consumption still weak, with no recovery in sight.

Similarly, there are many recovery plays that could be interesting: restaurants, cinemas, domestic tourism names in other countries (not so much Singapore) and we should think hard to find these names. On the flipside of the coin, we should be worried about pandemic positive stocks, like zoom and other SAAS names, that had done really well. Some of them have already collapsed, but we may not see it bottoming yet because valuations are still sky high. Just look at Peleton (below), the Netflix + stationary bike manufacturer.

Peleton's share price

At the height of the pandemic, everyone wanted a Peleton bike. The market cap was a crazy US$50 billion. It has fallen 80% but still it's US$12 billion market cap, which is bigger than SQ! This is a company with no earnings, no track record, no cashflow. Just the idea that you can watch motivation exercise videos and cycle to lose weight, which was the best thing ever when everyone was stuck at home. But what happens when we can go out again?

We live in the most unusual times. The GFC created the new paradigm shift to zero interest rates which caused asset prices to inflate through the roof. Some of this huge monetary expansion finds its way to fund startups and created giants (Gojek, Tiktok etc) in the span of a few years. Then the pandemic hit and we saw how it accelerated the growth of some of these co.s but decimated segments of the old economy.

In the midst of all this, we now have real world inflation, a possible bubble of everything and potential recovery in some covid-hit names. But we have to exercise caution because all this is not going to end well. We can only diversify (not so much into cash but different holdings, perhaps even crypto - topic for another day) and hope for the best!

Happy 2022, huat ah!