Sunday, 28 July 2013

Building a newbie portfolio

So someone asked me for help to build a portfolio. Our hypothetical investor wants to start with an initial investment of $3000, and a regular monthly contribution of $300, and not a whole lot besides that. Because the investor doesn’t have a whole lot of investment knowledge, they aren’t afraid to ask important questions that aren’t easily answered, such as:

‘So how much can I lose?’
‘Who am I investing with?’
‘What am I investing in?’
‘How much can I get out of this?’
‘How long will it take?’
‘Can I trust you?’

I do like big butts.
In other words, all very good questions that many salespeople will finesse their way through without giving you a straight answer. The reason for this pervasive evasive is somewhat nefarious, and not entirely relevant to for the purpose of this post, but suffice to note, these are all important questions that should be asked for all investments.

While the answers are important, so are the logic and assumptions behind the answers. After all, Bernie Madoff could easily answer any of the above six questions without breaking a sweat or, apparently, making an investment (link leads to an interview with Madoff, it’s pretty illuminating).

And regardless of what the recent crop of Sunday Times stories about young investor profiles will tell you, not everyone has the upper income parents/ financial advisor background/(very) high risk appetite/ $50k from parents/multi-industry business owner parents/multiple bank accounts and credit cards/ modeling career/frugal thrift to start off with a $20k portfolios. Personally, I question the message the Sunday Times investor profiles is sending. Advertisers should really find a better place for their ads. I’ve always admired the sports correspondents at TNP.

Back to the matter at hand; a starting amount of $3000 and a monthly contribution of $300, and about 40 years to play with till 65. Let’s also be really conservative and assume a nominal return of 3% p.a.
Say the investor retires at 65, and lives to a ripe age of 80.

Assuming all the above, we’re looking at a monthly income of around $4000 until 80 rolls along and our hypothetical investor dies gracefully. A couple of things I don’t know how to account for are inflation and the time value of money, but I’ll just leave that for now.

Peaking at around $743k, the question is then how can we achieve that 3% p.a. over a long period of 40 years. With only $3000, we’re looking at around one or two funds at best.

With that cap on options, I’m thinking of a half and half equity-bond mix. Given that bonds have had a terrific run over 2007 to 2012, I’m willing to take a little more risk on equity exposure right now. But for the sake of my sanity, I’ll go with the textbook 60/40 mix between equity and bonds.

To represent equity, I’m using the MSCI AC World TR, and for bonds, I’m looking at the Barclays Multiverse TR USD Unhedged, both in SGD terms. Drawing on 9.5 years of data (no real reason for that number, its entirely arbitrary), you see a good range of 12-month returns.



Based on the chart, one has a rough idea of how much one can win, lose and expect over a 12-mth period. This settles a good number of the above questions, with exception of ‘Who am I investing with?’

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Suicide by statistics

A recent report titled ‘suicides hit all-time highs in Singapore’ first broke on the AFP, and subsequently got picked up by Bangkok Post, Yahoo! News Singapore, and even Fox news.

With all this attention, I wouldn’t fault someone for thinking that life in the land of eternal sunshine is a weary façade for depressed souls trying to claw their way out of Singapore Inc. 
Foolish Singaporeans, there is no escape!

It’s a catchy headline, I can’t fault them for that, but out of curiosity, I went looking for the dataset from the Samaritans of Singapore, and the claims are entirely true:

Suicides in Singapore hit an all-time high of 487 in 2012 as more young people bogged down by stress and relationship woes took their own lives, a charity group dealing with the problem said Friday.

The tally, a 29 percent increase from the 2011 total, was boosted by an 80 percent rise in the 20-29 age bracket, the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) said in a statement. (Link)

But what feels a little lacking is some perspective. 

After all, a one year 29% increase in suicides does not a trend make. Drawing up the data showed the absolute number of suicides was indeed at all-time highs, but given a larger population to begin with, it doesn't seem entirely alarming.

I should probably point out that suicide through the lens of data and statistics is not the same as drilling down to the experience of each individual. The question I’m asking is not about the individual, it’s about the population as a whole, and every individual’s case is uniquely tragic.

But overall, society seems to be doing fairly all right.
Sources:
Total suicides, Source: Registry of Births and Deaths, Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, Singapore. Last accessed: http://www.samaritans.org.sg/National-Statistics.pdf
Population: Extracted from www.singstat.gov.sg
From a different angle, if total number of suicides is expressed as a percentage of total population, it still looks fairly stable.
Sources:
Total suicides, Source: Registry of Births and Deaths, Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, Singapore. Last accessed: http://www.samaritans.org.sg/National-Statistics.pdf
Population: Extracted from www.singstat.gov.sg
Now, if we were to compare suicides with total death rate, the picture shifts slightly.
Sources:
Death rate: CIA World Factbook
Total suicides: Source: Registry of Births and Deaths, Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, Singapore. Last accessed: http://www.samaritans.org.sg/National-Statistics.pdf
Population: Extracted from www.singstat.gov.sg
Things might look quite alarming, if not for the fact that while suicides are at all-time highs, death rates are at all-time lows: 3.41 deaths per 1000 population, according to the CIA World Factbook.

So the question becomes: why don't the all-time low death rates make headlines?

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Numbers on a page

I’m generally wary of writing about data.

Numbers are a different language from words, the former developed primarily for quantifying, measuring and, in my case, stultifying.

Words on the other hand, being the general-purpose tool evolved over lifetimes of use and abuse, have the unenviable task of deal with the amorphous category of the immeasurable.

So while I can throw data on to a blank page, it generally looks much prettier when vomited onto a chart.

That's quite a lot of money.
The chart shows the growth of 60k, with an annual 12k investment, compounded at 8% per annum, will grow to roughly 2.2m in 30 years. The key question in this case is to find an investment that can reasonably be expected to compound reliably at 8% yearly for 30 years.


I’ve been told early-stage Ponzi schemes make excellent investments, but they seem to be in short supply.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Eat thine own cooking

I would have written this a long time ago, if my motivation wasn’t so readily eroded by distractions and general inertia.

Say you have about S$100,000 to invest, and in 10 years, you want to grow it to S$1,000,000. The actual numbers are unimportant, but the point is the compounded growth rate needed to achieve that goal. To get there in 10 years, you would need to grow that S$100,000 by around 26% every year, for 10 years.

When I was 20, I thought I’d be a millionaire by 30, and retire by 40 to live by the beach and surf and dive all day; and I thought 26% compounded over 10 years was a realistic rate of return. Ah, youth.

Merlyn Ee of the MAS was recently quoted saying, ‘We need to do more to help Singaporeans better prepare for life's unexpected events and to set aside adequate savings for their golden years.’ And citing a HSBC survey done,

Over half of Singapore respondents feel their financial preparations for a comfortable retirement are inadequate: 44% feel their preparations are not enough, whilst 12% are not preparing at all.

She does have rather lofty aspirations for financial advisors in Singapore:

Financial advisory firms can help Singaporeans realise these goals. My vision for the financial advisory industry in Singapore is for financial advisers to be viewed as professionals, just like lawyers, engineers and accountants, with their own code of conduct and high standards of practice.  We are not there yet.

With the exception of the last sentence, real reform lies in a more informed group of consumers, who won’t end up buying structured products, neglecting their investments, and falling for sales tactics practiced by some in the industry. The tricky bit is finance isn’t something people think about a lot. Sure those of us in the industry spend quite some time on it, but I would wager a good number of us, myself included, have quite a few blind spots when it comes to the financial 
phantasmagoria of products.

I can think of two reasons why. Firstly, many don’t have a foundation in finance. I certainly didn’t study finance. What I know has been gleaned over years of experience and a hodge-podge of financial literature often written for larger markets. I’d like to think I know the basic tents of investing but that leads to my second point; knowing versus doing.

This doesn’t get talked about enough. Doing finance is a bit like doing a budget. It sounds and feels good talking about it, but actually sitting down and itemizing income and expenditure ranks somewhere below watching grass grow. Picking investments is the fun part, like shopping for nerds. Portfolio maintenance, rebalancing, and creating excel models is the boring stuff.


If finance is going to be a bigger part of Singapore’s economy, it’s peculiar that not much emphasis is placed on the financial skills needed to make sense of the discipline, especially in schools. 

Some might say it’s a responsibility.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

People on streets

After just under two weeks of haze craze, PSI numbers fall, visibility clears, and the air tastes refreshingly free of burnt rubber. Since no one knows if this recent development is mere respite or remission, I figured I’d grab the chance for a walk in the park.

PSI fell off a cliff, and hopefully never bounces back.
I don’t think much of PSI numbers. I’ll concede it can be a very useful measure of a very specific set of pollutants, but for an individual, there’s an easier way, called sticking your head out and taking a whiff. After all, I live in the East, and work in the South (as per NEA’s geographical definitions). As much as I miss the smell of burnt cocoa at Boon Lay MRT, (thanks Cadbury and ADM cocoa) my lungs can’t inhale that far.

Back in East Coast Park, feet slapping pavement, two items catch my attention.

One; there are a lot of people in East Coast on a Saturday night. Two; more than two aforementioned people are lying/sleeping/passed out on the floor.

By passed out on the floor, I don’t mean curled up with a makeshift pillow and a blanket under the numerous shelters along the park. I mean like this dude below, who looks like he sleep-rolled off the bench and onto the floor.
Sleeping like a baby.
Or like the young indian girl who was sprawled by the overhead bridge. I’m going to risk belaboring the obvious, but if you’re a slim female, with large breasts and a very short skirt, it might be a good idea to be very careful with what you consume. 

For reasons of modesty, I didn’t snap a picture. Her crotch was visible enough that would likely get my blog noticed for the wrong reasons. It was particularly troubling, because she didn’t reek of alcohol, and was fairly young and attractive. My first guess is date rape drug. But I’m no expert in these matters.

Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one who stopped to help. A few good Samaritans, including a rather hot milf in red shorts, a burly Indian man, a homely pinoy woman, and a trio of young NS men came along and started helping in ways that could only be described as random. While I’m trying to rouse indian girl, Burly tells pinoy to fetch some water. She returns, and Burly instructs me to stand back.

Stand back? Dude, how much water are you going to planning to – he pours a handful of water into his palm, and flings it against her face with somewhat more force than I was anticipating. No response.

Somewhere in the background, one of the NS trio goes, ‘fwahlaueh’.

Somewhat startled by Burly’s enthusiasm, I start shaking her with more urgency, lest he decides to douse the entire 1.5L bottle on her. Meanwhile, pinoy and milfy are tending to the delicate task of hiding too much crotch with too little skirt. They settle for placing her handbag strategically between her legs.

Meanwhile, burly has slapped at least three palms of water to the girl’s face, and I’m half-worried she’ll drown before she wakes up. Finally, she stirs, muttering and sputtering weakly. Of course, Burly then proceeds to grab her by the hair and tug her into a sitting position.

I’m convinced Burly is a time-travelling caveman; give him a stone axe and a shopping list that includes mastodon meat and sabre-toothed tiger pelts.

Somehow, we manage to raise indian girl to her feet with no hair loss, although the same can’t be said for her memory; she has no clue how she got here. Troubling to say the least, but at least she’s sober enough to protest against being sent to a police station to sleep off her condition. Round of discussion. 

Burly, clearly a man of action, starts speaking loudly in Tamil. I have no clue what he’s saying, but my sympathies lie with indian girl, who after recently revived, nearly drowned, and barely able to stand, now has to contend with a mustachioed caveman gibbering loudly to her face.

Eventually we decide to get her into a cab. Next issue, she says she has no money - nothing like budgetary constraints to stop a discussion in its tracks. Finally, milfy steps in, opens the handbag, and rummages through indian girl’s belongings.

‘I have no money,’ indian girl murmurs…then somewhat brightly, ‘but I have cigarettes!’

Thanks to milfy, turns out Indian girl does have money ('Oh, I do?' she says), and enough to get her home by taxi. But not before one of the NS trio suddenly swoops into interrogator mode, firing off questions, ‘What do you last remember? Who were you with? What were you doing?’ More than a few of us frowned, including Burly, although it’s hard to tell from his Neanderthal uni-brow whether he was perplexed or thinking of his next meal.

Finally, we get her into a cab, and the entire episode is punctuated by Burly slamming the taxi door.

I hope indian girl is home safe.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Alternatives to big Asia Pac funds

Following a raft of closures of top GEM funds, the next region to see a number of closures seems to be the Asia Pacific region, with at least one top Aberdeen executive providing guidance that the fund’s closure will come ‘sooner rather than later’, while another Aberdeen vet was quoted saying, ‘we wouldn’t be keen on having US$5b flood through the door’.

I like how Hugh Young probably evokes envy and annoyance by speaking plainly. Many an Asia Pacific and Asia Pacific ex-Japan equity fund love a US$5b flood like a desert in search of a fire hose. But investors, oh fickle souls they are, will tend to seek funds with the potential to turn their bucket of liquidity into a monetary oasis, from which springs forth the fruits of no labour. Or so they hope.

Besides, I could use a little practice with new software.

Pulling up a list of funds sold in Singapore, with a minimum 5-year track record and focused on the Asia Pacific/Asia Pacific ex-Japan region, I rank them based on their calmar ratio.
Not to be confused with the calamari ratio: the ratio of sauce to squid. 
Cal-what? Good question, prior to writing this article, your humble writer had no clue either.

The calmar ratio divides the average compounded return (of at least 36 months) by the maximum drawdown over the same period. I like it because it’s simpler than the Sharpe ratio, and the calmar ratio doesn’t muck about with nefariously misunderstood terms like volatility.

So from end-May 2013 to end-May 2008, the top 20 funds ranked by calmar are:

5/31/2008 to 5/31/2013
Calmar ratio
Name

Schroder ISF Asian Total Return A Acc
0.29
Value Partners High-Dividend Stocks Fund A1
0.22
CAM-GTF Ltd
0.20
First State Asian Equity Plus I (Distributing)
0.17
First State Dividend Advantage SGD
0.16
Aberdeen Pacific Equity SGD
0.15
Lumiere Value
0.14
First State Asian Growth I Accumulation USD
0.14
Schroder Asian Growth SGD
0.14
First State Asian Growth SGD
0.13
Legg Mason WA Southeast Asia Special Sits Trust
0.12
Aberdeen Global - Asia Pacific Eqty A2 USD
0.10
Old Mutual Pacific Equity A USD
0.10
Henderson HF Asian Dividend Income A2 USD
0.10
Schroder ISF Asian Equity Yield A Acc
0.09
Schroder Asian Equity Yield A
0.09
Barclays GA - Pacific Rim (ex-Japan) M Inc
0.09
Fidelity Funds - Asia Pacific Dividend A-USD
0.08
Invesco Pacific Equity A
0.08
Schroder ISF Asian Opportunities A Acc
0.08

Now, bearing in mind this is nothing more than a ranked list based on a ranking criterion selected more for simplicity than convention, there are obvious limitations to what you can draw from the list.

But safe to say, there are options.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

For posterity #FreeMyInternet@Hong Lim Park

Yes, I did this. None of the photos belong to me.
I’m planning to be at Hong Lim Park from 4pm today. It’s a three hour investment, which I’d much rather spend in many other ways, so I guess I better pen down for posterity, ‘what was I thinking?’

#FreeMyInternet (#FMI) protesters in Singapore tend to get lumped into all sorts of different categories.

The government, or at least the ones that are publically quoted, seem to think #FMIers are either
a) overreacting and upsetting the status quo (i.e. the shit stirrer image), or
b) just need an outlet to vent (i.e. the cry fathermother image)

The participating online community, and there’s no shortage of comments posted online, are either
a) bastions of the freedom of expression (i.e. unrealistic idealist image)
b) protesting the absence of engagement (i.e. I’m angry because you didn’t invite me to the meeting!)

The mainstream media thinks the whole protest doesn’t exist. I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. SPH and Mediacorp’s absence is can only be explained by a) coercion (bor ji), b) cowardice (hum ji), or c) incompetence (pua ji).

To be fair, the government clearly has mainstream media’s balls in an ice-kachang machine. Cheong Yip Seng’s memoir explains it way better than my balls-in-a-dessert-machine analogy.

So why will I be there?

I’m not sufficiently annoyed to be angry, not sufficiently idealistic enough to think the protest will actually achieve much, nor sufficiently symbol-minded to think I’m making some statement about the state of freedom in death-penalty Disneyland.

Still, I think it’s important as Singapore’s online community negotiates its relationship with the world offline. If you take a global view, it’s a continuation of a trend that includes Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring, Gezi Parki, and more relevantly, SOPA and PIPA.

Incidentally, Singapore signed the pending ACTA treaty, so it’s not like there was no foreshadowing of the approach of the MDA. The difference is ACTA was done on a global scale, with no consultation with international civic groups, yet there was little global outcry. So it’s an established trend: governments are finding ways to legitimize their claim to the internet staking out their domain, so to speak, and the law is a key tool to mark boundaries.

The key question for me is how the interaction between these two communities will play out. So I’m curious at best, which is a nice way of saying I’m bloody kaypoh.


Plus, I like my Youtube unfiltered please. 


Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Cambodia, Siem Reap: Temple Run


No, that's a different sort of temple run.

This sort of temple run:
That's a lot of temples.
Siem Reap is known for many delights and from a USD perspective they’re all cheap; massages, food (I’m not a fan, more on this later) and if you fancy taking a 34% chance of catching HIV, sex.

For me and my travel buddy, Cambodia was one long temple run. They all look magnificent, they all inspire awe, and four temples later, they all. look. the. same. Law of diminishing returns applies here – every additional temple/child/dessert/indulgence is increasingly less satisfying than the last.

Still, memorable moments aplenty.

Angkor Wat is immense, gargantuan, and every superlatively sized noun you can think of.  According to this site,
The outside perimeter of Angkor Wat measures 5,500m. Dimensions are gigantic forming a rectangle of about 1500m by 1300m with 200m wide moats.
For purpose of scale, the tallest buildings in Singapore are restricted to 280m tall. In other words, the dimensions of Angkor Wat are somewhat larger than a field of five by four UOB Plaza Ones, all at the golden era of 1125. 

We walked down the stone path leading to the outer gardens of Angkor Wat. Groups of monks loiter around. In truth, they weren’t steeped in prayer, and looked slightly out of place, like JC students doing community service. It didn’t stop at least one tourist from taking a really awkward looking photo with the monks.
What exactly did the tourist on the top left think he was doing?
Ta Prohm is ancient Khmer for ‘Tomb Raider Temple’. And if you believe that, then here’s the link to nominate me for (online) sainthood (Call me Saint Nick, ho ho ho). Ta Prohm is entirely overrun by nature. Tree roots forced their way into the crevices of the walls, grew into the mortar, and fused tree with temple. Because tree roots make lousy mortar, some areas are structurally unsafe as a result and are held up by metal support beams and wooden planks. We only found this out after wandering into the aforementioned structurally unsafe areas, taking pictures of metal support beams, directly underneath several hundred kilograms of stone and tree. Who knew.

I swear, we had no idea how we stumbled into the restricted area.
 Rounding off the temple run (for me at any case) were Bayon and Bantey Srey. Bayon is famous for its 196 faces of Buddha, which archeologists seem to agree is Jayavarman VII, a Mahayan Buddhist. As for why he felt the urge to have 196 images of himself in a temple, one can only guess. Bantey Srey is easily the most modest of the four and the prettiest. Carved out of red sandstone, it’s a welcome change from the grey stone walls that make up other temples. Trivia: Bantey Srey means ‘Citidal of Women/Beauty’. Guess modest women were prettier back then.

Smaller = less walking = much appreciated.
And then I got struck by food poisoning. I don’t know what caused it, although the fried noodles are Al's guess. There are few things more paralyzing than feeling a gurgle in your stomach move rapidly south towards your sphincter, and you stumble weakly to the bathroom. I’m just glad they didn’t have images of Jayavarman staring at me in the toilet.
That's me under the blanket. I might not have been wearing pants.
Thus endeth the holiday.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Cambodia, Phnom Penh: Toul Sleng and Ecstatic Pizza

After the killing fields, we were feeling pretty somber. By the end of Toul Sleng, we’d be downright depressed.

While Choeung Ek is around 12km from the Phnom Penh, Toul Sleng sits Phnom Penh city, nearby the Olympic Stadium. 

View Blog post Cambodia in a larger map


Arriving at the the Toul Sleng genocide museum, Al murmured, ‘it looks like a school,’ as we walked past 4-story cell blocks surrounding a central courtyard. The blocks are weathered, badly peeled, and riddled with holes, while the courtyard looked pretty well maintained. ‘What a waste’, said Al.

Doesn't look like the same compound, but it is.
The overall atmosphere is as tired and hopeless as the worn paint jobs peeling off the walls. And if that wasn’t enough, there are signs that say ‘no laughing’. I kid you not, some tourists (invariably American for some reason) managed to giggle, which probably says more about their nervousness than their sense of humor.

Don't need to read Cambodian to know what that means
An estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned in Toul Sleng, including men, women and children; old and young; local and foreign; an equal opportunity hell. Unlike the killing fields however, each prisoner was carefully documented, and rows upon rows of photographs are displayed in the exhibits.


What was the guy in the bottom left smiling about?
Among the hundreds of mugshots, one stood out. It’s a picture of a man, looks about 20 or 30, with one eye. There is no story about him I can find. He stares weakly out of his one eye into the camera, and unlike so many other shots, I don’t see fear, just grim resolve.

'Do your worst, punk,' he seemed to say.
I don’t think it’s necessary to inflict the photos of dead bodies on my gentle readers, suffice to say, they’re rather gory, and you can easily find them online if you’re into that (you sick puppy you). But the gore-free holding cells are equally creepy. The wooden cells on the second floor especially.

Less light filters into the wooden cells, and the cells themselves are tightly packed to maximize holding space. In the 38 degree heat of the Cambodian afternoon, wood creaks, and standing alone in the middle of a dark claustrophobic space with knocking sounds from empty cells is unpleasant at best.

An elderly couple shuffled in and out of the cells silently.
And if an old Cambodian couple sneaks up on you, try not to scream like a little girl.

After leaving, we desperately needed a shot of happiness. And according to Trip Advisor, one of the best places to get highly happy is ecstatic pizza. (Artistic license: we actually went to a swanky restaurant called Latin Quarter, and didn’t hit Ecstatic Pizza until Siem Reap. But it makes much better story sense.)

The pizzas tasted good enough, the crust was good, the toppings generous, and the chef went a little overboard with the herbs. No pink elephants or rainbows, but certainly a few moments that made us go ‘hmm’. All washed down with a couple of banana/mango shakes. Life is a holiday again.

Things that remind you life is still a holiday.
On the way back to our hotel, a freelance prostitute grabbed our crotches a little too enthusiastically for comfort. ‘I want to make you cum’, she said, in a low hoarse voice. I still shudder thinking about it.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Cambodia, Phnom Penh: Cheoung Ek Killing Fields

Cambodia, Phnom Penh in the middle of May; 38 degree weather slaps layers of sweat onto my face, before it trickles down my rapidly darkening shirt.

Having spent the last two weeks running from one corporate event to another, I figured it’d be a good idea to get away from skyscrapers and concrete, and spend some time on the other side of the world. After some thought, Alex and I decided the other side of the world would be Cambodia, home to human atrocities, monumental temples, and happy pizza.

Our first stop: a merry jaunt down the killing fields, followed by a hop and a skip to the Toul Sleng holding prison. Until recently, I only had a very vague notion of what Cambodian went through under the Khmer Rouge, I mean sure, people talk about it, but it’s not the sort of thing one actively goes out looking for, unless you’re writing a paper on human genocide. So while we were merrily scammed by our tuk tuk driver on the way to the killing fields, we did a little research into the regime.

The Khmer Rouge was the Communist Party of Kampuchea, a political party which ran Cambodia (then named Kampuchea) from 1975 to 1979. I’m not particularly interested in their ideology, other than it being xenophobic and insular.

In 1975, the population of Cambodia was approximately 7mi. In 1980, the population was 6.5mi. Various studies estimate the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of between 1.4mi to 2.2mi Cambodians.


By and large the leaders of the genocide have walked free. Most went on to live long and healthy lives, and have only recently apologized inMay 2013. They still maintain they were doing the right thing.

Little from the original killing fields is left standing; most of the buildings were razed for scrap material and the major building is a 12-story high mausoleum and a single story museum, which houses images of the camp. 

Visitors get a Walkman with a programmed audio tour, chock full of survivor testimonies, and disturbing stories.

Creative deaths were a recurring theme in the tour. When bullets were scarce, people were executed by their captors with farming implements, DDT, and in a few cases, sugar palm. The stems of the sugar palm are lined with serrated bark edges, sharp enough to cut through human skin. So captors, presumably dissatisfied with conventional means of death and with a lot of time on their hands, dragged the throats of prisoners across the serrated stems of the sugar palm. The edges themselves are sharp, but short, so I imagine it would take quite a few tries before the gash was large enough to be fatal. Like I said, they had time.

Another is the baby tree. Babies and toddlers, being conveniently sized, were brained against a particular tree in the compound. There’s nothing really imaginative about this, just brutishly cruel.

Baby tree, sugar palm, shudder.
The only other item that stood out to me was the Buddhist stupa, which houses more than 5000 skulls in the lower 7 levels, while the upper 5 levels house the ribs and other assorted bones. It stands out in an open field, stark, imposing, and severe, almost like a morgue.

Buddhist stupa, 12 floors of bones

Next merry monument - Toul Sleng Genocide Museum

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Bukit Timah in the dark



At 163m above sea level, Bukit timah hill is the tallest point of Singapore. Which is a bit like saying Tampines Rovers is the best team in the S-league; it doesn’t mean much, and no one really cares, save for the small group of middle-aged foolhardies stomping along the dirt trails at 2330hrs.

Surrounding Bukit Timah Hill is Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, which at 2030hrs, is pitch dark. Black doesn’t begin to describe the depth of how dark it gets. If you hold your hand within breathing distance of your face, you wouldn’t see it, making it a great hiding place for a local cryptid.

I don’t see why the National Tourism Board doesn’t include the Bukit Timah Monkey Man as one of the attractions in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, it’s worth good money in certain circles. Of course people will never see one - it spends all its time in hiding from public view, much like post-election politics. And much like politics, it’s not about facts, it’s about hype.

Reality tends to hit much harder, and at 29 degree Celsius, and 91% humidity, we were drenched in the foul reality of sweat-drenched bodies, glued on shirts, and moist underwear. More than a few ankles landed awkwardly, which considering you’re in a forest of tree roots, mud and rocks with only a headlamp to light your way, is the reality of midnight treks.

Unlike the guy in the video, we were a group of six, which was just as well, because being in the middle of a Bukit Timah alone at night is pretty eerie, although nowhere near as creepy as Aokigahara at the base of Mount Fuji (dead bodies in that link, informed clicks please). Maybe that’s why the Oxfam Japan 2013 route doesn’t actually have Fuji as part of its route, or maybe there are plans to keep hikers off its beloved trails because those damn hikers keep dying.

It’s good to be trekking. 

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Man of Steel

Third trailer is out. I am optimistic, not just because visually it's got Zack Snyder's name on it (remember 300? Yeah, now recall Watchmen. Meh.) but because you've got Goyer-Nolan behind the scenes, working their magic on the script. And the script is the blueprint for everything embedded in the movie.

Goyer-Nolan scripted Batman Begins, so their track record for producing good first arcs is certainly a good one. And just for pumped-up kicks, take a look at the IMDB box office stats for Batman Begins: production cost is an estimated US$150m. As at 19 July 2012, worldwide gross is US$374m. Production time started in March 2004. From March 2004 till July 2012, is about 8.3 years. Works out to about an annualised 11% return which is a pretty awesome investment, from a gross numbers point of view. Net numbers likely look very different. Of course, let's not talk about the labour issues inherent in the film industry.

Man of Steel is set to hit the screens worldwide 14 June 2013.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Working out with Jim Rogers

It's not everyday I get to make Jim Rogers sweat with my questions. Or in this case, he was getting his cardio by simultaneously being interviewed, while riding his exercise bike.

Constipated and happy at the same time.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

EM Equity three-way: Aberdeen v First State v JP Morgan




There’s been plenty of interest in the JP Morgan EM Opportunities fund. Inevitably, it’s going to draw comparisons with the two bigger GEM funds out there from First State and Aberdeen. So as an academic exercise, I figured it’s worth comparing the performances of all three.

Richard Titherington, the face of JP Morgan EM Opps, is listed as the manager since October 2009. So examining the time period of end-Sep 2009 to end-Feb 2013 gives about 3yrs of data to play with, with a rolling 12-month timeframe. to be fair, 12-month returns come with quite a bit of market noise, but bearing in mind I’m dealing with 3 years of data, it’s probably a sufficient, if flawed (entirely mine), start.


data: Lipper, in USD terms, dividends reinvested

The two charts above say that the fund does well across the ups and downs of the three years that Titherington has been managing the fund. Most of the time, the performance beats the market, and when it does, it’s by a bigger margin than when it doesn’t.

Performance alone says nothing about how he does it, neither does it say whether he’ll repeat this in the future, which are arguably the two more interesting questions. The next question then is how it compares against Aberdeen and First State GEM funds. 
data: Lipper, in USD terms, dividends reinvested
First State GEM leaders is a defensive machine, with a larger margin of outperformance than JPMorgan EM Opps on the downside. It does less well in stronger-than-average bull markets, compared with JPM EM Opps. Still…a clean sheet in down markets is a tough act to follow, unless the fund in question is one Aberdeen GEM fund.

Defensively, Aberdeen rivals First State GEM, with a clean sheet in down markets. On the upside, Aberdeen GEM in the past three years tends to beat the market, but relative to the other two funds, by a smaller margin. Again, clean sheet = tough act.

So from an investor’s point of view, the question of which fund to choose boils down to whether one is looking for a fund that performs well in up markets and down markets, or one that performs well in up markets, but better in down markets. All three are solid performers, with Aberdeen and First State holding
 an edge when markets head south.

Clearly, there’s a lot of interest in the EM story, and a lot of people are filling up the space, which is great for choice. But I reckon there will be more thematic funds coming up. We already have a few EM small cap funds in the space, infrastructure spending is big in India, and China’s consumption story has already inspired a consumption-themed fund or two.

Of course, so much interest in a relatively immature market does raise caution in several better known bears. Andy Xie for instance, has started writing about a BRIC bubble:
‘Whenever there is a hot concept like BRIC, there is a bubble. There has never been an exception.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

While I was away...

So after disappearing for a good month or so, I resurface to find myself completely immersed in the slightly unfamiliar waters of the broader fund universe. To be exact, over 109,000 funds in 57 registered for sale (RFS) countries, according to Lipper.

I find it rather exciting, although not as exciting as a good WWE match. It's quite a learning curve, which is a phrase I wouldn't mind carved on my gravestone, not so much as a lament for the relentless pace of change than a concise summary on a punctuation mark.

But time spent navel gazing, which I'd much rather not do on a public blog, is time better spent ruminating on how to write better articles, or at least more enlightening ones.

There's a small debate growing about long-form journalism, questioning the decline in 2000-word articles in heavyweight publications like the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal. First up this is obviously a US-centric view of the publishing world, and I don't think you'll find many people worrying over the same question in Singapore. After all there are more important questions to ask, like, 'Dude, where my car?'

Although, if the data from MAS is any indication, there's enough to pay for many cars. Singapore residents as a whole, are pretty damn flush with cash. Approximately S$500billion worth sits in the banks. That's about 10 million cars, worth S$50k each.

data: Monetary Authority of S,ingapore 
URL: https://secure.mas.gov.sg/msb-xml/Report.aspx?tableSetID=I&tableID=I.4

Monday, 14 January 2013

Tracking Portfolio Performance


I like knowing things. But sometimes I lack the native speaker’s grasp of a language to be fluently knowledgeable in matters foreign to my still-evolving mind. So I’ve been dragging my feet over calculating my portfolio’s return, because I’m not entirely confident of my math.

Which means I’m either going to make a passable effort, or fail spectacularly. Better to make the effort and be a good sport however it turns out.

So for the past few months or so, I’ve been tracking my daily portfolio value, by logging into my FSM account – why – so I can track my portfolio’s daily return – why – so I can compare my portfolio’s return with a risk-free rate of return: a certain 3.5% p.a. courtesy of the CPF-OA interest rate.

If my portfolio of investments fail to beat the risk free rate of return, then I’m just pissing away my time and money, and I’d be better off leaving my money in Singapore Government Bonds, which the CPF invests in. (On a side note, I found no info about the portfolio of the CPF monies i.e. which SGS Bonds they’re invested in…if anyone can point me in the right direction, I’d be grateful).

I thought calculating returns would be a simple task of calculating the difference between how much I put in versus how much I got out. Turns out, like many things in finance, it can get quite a bit more complicated if one so chooses.

Sure I can find out how much I made, but that’s not all there is to returns. I also want to know the magnitude of any positive/negative returns over a given period.

There are other limitations with a simple, 1-number measure of performance. That measure of performance, expressed in a formula is: (current value/initial investment)-1.

Firstly, it doesn't tell you which fund contributed to the portfolio’s performance. If a fund is losing money, I want to know about it, and whether it’s doing so because the market is crap in general or the fund manager has decided to dedicate his life to improving his golf handicap instead of generating returns.
Secondly, realized losses aren't captured. For example,

Say I held two funds from 2011 to 2012, with $1000 in each fund (Initial investment=2000, current value =2000, performance = 0%).
Two months later, one fund drops 50%, while the other remains constant. (Initial investment=2000, current value =1500, performance = -25%).
In a fit of anger, I realize my loss, selling all my units of that losing fund. (Initial investment=1000, current value =1000, performance = 0%).

Presto, I've no longer incurred a loss on my portfolio. This is problematic because it doesn't provide an accurate measure of the performance of my portfolio. (it hides the losers, while illuminating the winners. Survivorship bias anyone?)

So I’m left with the challenge of finding a way to track the performance of my portfolio, adjusting for various ups, downs, ins, and outs of its performance.
In the 1800s, the intelligentsia thought having heretics wear dunce caps would improve their intelligence. Sadly, neither intelligentsia nor heretics have matured much since then. (Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scene_from_an_Inquisition_by_Goya.jpg)