Wealth management is a complex process

Should you invest in ETF?

Wealth management is a complex process of defining the client’s needs and designing a portfolio that is rightly exposed to meet the client’s requirements over a very long time. Most may confuse the definitive of wealth management and wrongly consider wealth management as stock selection. The latter has a scope too narrow and can be dangerous.

There is a huge ecosystem of professionals support the wealth management industry. Wealth managers are a critical person in the process. They determine the investment objectives and finalize the weighting targets for the individual portfolio’s targets. This process of finding the right instrument is carefully led by the pre-determined investor’s IPS — investment policy statement.

Determining the IPS is the first and most important step. A good IPS will mitigate the risk of the portfolio. Imagine the IPS as the parameter of your house. You draw clear parameters to ensure your family members do not cross over the line and be exposed to danger. A fund manager may have multiple interesting investment opportunities, some of them may possess unique risks that cannot be easily diversified in the context of your portfolio. A group of random collections, all promising high returns spell danger and volatility.

Investors have unique characteristics and different IPS. A retirement fund may have a time horizon of 20 years and prefer income to capital gains. A growth portfolio may have a longer time horizon of 50 years to fund the young executive’s savings. The growth portfolio will require a mix of high risk products. The same investment prospect cannot be equally considered for two different portfolios.
Given the complexity, the first goal of the investor is to select a highly skilled and persistent wealth manager. This is not a straight forward task. More than 80% of managers do not beat the market. An investor that prefers the cheapest investment strategy that outperforms most fund managers will be automatically attracted to the index fund investing. Index funds replicate the performance of benchmarks and do not make an attempt to outperform. Given the non-discretionary decision to replicate the market, professionals label this strategy as passive management. The benefits of passive are clear. Firstly, this strategy is simple and does not require complex selection of managers and determining of IPS. Secondly, the simplicity implies cheap fees since managers are not paid exorbitant incentives to outperform he market.

Investors need to make an informed choice between two options.

1. Adopt a more active process to select managers and to determine the investor policy statement and 

2. Invest in a non-discretionary equity index fund.

Annuities and Retirement Planning — Longevity Risk

A closer look at annuities and retirement planning in the context of Singapore

Annuities get very little respect because they are portrayed as expensive and loaded with sales fees. However, a rapidly aging demographic and declining real wages has jeopardised the current projections for government led pension plans. It is not easy to supplement retirement with private wealth management plans because the state cannot mandate how much citizens save beyond the scope of pension policy.

Life annuities are crucial because they hedge against longevity risks and medical expense risk. In fact, annuity payments should be inflation indexed. Life annuities have monthly payouts. The stream of cash flows can be replicated by a mix of bond payments. It does seem like bond yields may no longer be able to match up with the required annuity yield. To meet the annuity payouts over a longer time, annuity managers may need to introduce risky products like equity index funds into the portfolio. But it is unclear if citizens are open to endure the high risk.

In Singapore’s context, I am less sure if Singaporeans are preparing for longevity risks. Should they expect to systematically live longer, to say, 90 year old, the consumption save must reduce tremendously. Practically, a young professional who expects to live till 100 will need to start investing in equities as soon as he starts work.

It is incorrect to think that life annuities are expensive products if we assume Singapore is a competitive market for annuities. In a competitive market, we can assume that longevity risks and recent demographic trends are priced into these financial products.

There are ways to reduce premiums for annuities. The larger the insured pool, the lower the premiums. For one, the fixed costs will be reduced. The pooled risks approach a normal probability curve. This implies that Singapore government’s mandatory annuity policy is in the right direction from a policy point of view. But the policy makers should introduce the annuity programme with a softer approach. Perhaps annuities need not be made mandatory right at the start. In fact, the government can communicate the benefits of annuities and highlight the financial risks of not subscribing to an annuity.

Risks of the ETF in the near future

There are fears that ETFs will be the key contributor to the next financial crisis. ETFs now take up a huge percentage of retail and pension investments. Some suspect that the ETFs will lead the market instead of mirroring it. Lack of liquidity within ETFs may cause rapid selling of ETF units, destabilizing the general stock market.

Another concern is how over-levered some ETFs are. There are also complex ETFs that are leveraged, synthetic and inversed. It is not clear yet that the impact of these instruments on the overall markets when prices become unstable. For far too long, ETFs have been the cool kid on the street. Investors have ignored the voices of some who share the adverse side effects of ETFs. It is well known that the ETF structure is unique, requiring units of ETFs to be created and to be tracked according to the market. The creation and marking to market of the ETF is a constant arbitrage exercise. Not every ETF is liquid and simple. Some ETFs mirror complex markets like junk bonds, loans and less familiar municipal indexes.

Finally, ETFs when leading the market is a representation of herdish behaviour. Afterall, every ETF investor invests in the same market within the same ETF product. For some, they have preferred index funds over ETFs precisely for fear of the ETF structure.

Little known truths about the investing community

Net return received by investors is net of cost. There are many types of costs. Some are clear, some are hidden. Our financial system is complex. There are too many middlemen, the leftover returns for the common man can be too little to sustain savings. Investors (you) becomes the bottom of the priority list.

Investors commit money and get exposed to risk. If the market moves in your direction, the hedge fund manager takes a large chunk of your wins. If the market moves against your direction, the manager is insulated from losses. He still takes a fee from you.

Benjamin Graham said that anyone can design a strong portfolio with just stocks and bonds that are representative of the market.

A do nothing policy is always better than an active strategy. As long as you make a decision to move money, someone charges a fee. If I may summarize, always invest with the lowest cost instrument - index funds.

Disruption is necessary in businesses

We must disrupt ourselves in businesses. Otherwise, others will disrupt us. The process of disrupting ourselves will be painful. Sometimes, new process will threaten our cash flows. But this learning process helps to “boost” our “immune system” to catastrophic changes.

O2 in the UK launched GiffGaff. They provided cheap prepaid data plans. There will be some cannibalization effect on postpaid plans. But this was necessary given the technology developments.

Banks should also relook at their fee heavy businesses. Can traditional banks build virtual banks without physical touchpoints to lower costs? Will they do that by themselves before others take away their businesses?

I think we should explore technologies, disrupt ourselves. This should happen concurrently as we exploit existing technologies.

Disruption to Service Industry

On the 1st September 2015, Eatsa, a high tech fast food restaurant opened near San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Eatsa revolutionaries the dining experience with full automation of all processes besides cooking and eating. With the exception of a few kitchen staff, there is not a human in sight. The restaurant has received good reviews. This marks a new era — technology has begun disrupting the low skilled service industries.

Technologies have always disrupted industries. And disruptions are not always friendly. When personal computers became affordable, many processes were made more efficient. Less workers were required. The same happened within manufacturing over the last few decades. Today, the number of workers required in an automobile factory is a fraction of the number required 30 years ago.

But why is this development unsettling for Singapore and our region? Eatsa marks a tipping point because entrepreneurs have finally commercialized this automated solution. It no longer remains in the scientific repositories of institutes.

Our service industries provide a lot of low skilled jobs that were harder for machines to replace. Unlike the jobs of welders and technicians, it was harder to replace the work of waitresses. Within the next decade, this technology will become cheaper. Owners of F&B outlets can access this technology. Needless to know, low skilled Singaporeans must brace themselves for change.

Policy makers cannot shield Singaporeans from these changes. It will be worse for Singapore or any country to regulate such technologies. In fact, it makes more sense to adapt to such changes quickly.

Rough economic seas call for leaders with proven track records

Singapore has 5.5 million people, a tiny if not negligible domestic market. Other economies are significantly bigger: China has 1.36 billion people; Indonesia has 253 million.

Some argue that our purchasing power is higher. But it is mathematically impossible, in dollar terms, to consume as much as China or most of the rapidly growing nations in the region.

We will never be the natural top choice of operations for top firms, no matter how rich we become.

Some of us think the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will be Singaporeans’ hope. They believe ASEAN countries can form a common market as the European Union did. Unfortunately, ASEAN nations have very different characteristics and political interests.

While I believe ASEAN nations will be more cohesive with the ASEAN Economic Community 2015, Singapore will not be the Frankfurt equivalent in the EU. In fact, in the long run, it may be more palatable for each member to bypass ASEAN’s complex interests and deal with larger economies such as China and the United States individually.

This means Singapore has no alternative but to open our financial markets to the international community. We must also be the trading hub for this part of the world for as long as we are relevant.

Today, we are integrated with the world. Based on World Trade Organization data, our trade to gross domestic product ratio from 2011 to 2013 was 366.2. To put it simply, our economy will always be volatile and linked to global markets.

Notably, we were among the first to enter a recession in 2008 and among the first to enjoy great growth rates in later years.

Our interconnectedness requires us to select the smartest leaders of the lot to govern Singapore and help us survive on the rough economic seas. Many believe that the global economy will become more cyclical.

This implies that changes will happen quickly. In future, more Singaporeans will lose their jobs overnight. Industries may be wiped out by disruptive technologies.

We need ministers with the uncompromising courage to identify and make policy changes. Singapore has no buffer against failure. If we were Malaysians, we could fail and return home from Kuala Lumpur. We would still own some land and go on with life.

If Singapore fails, investors would exit; they are not beholden to Singaporeans. And we have no hinterland. Some argue that we should focus largely on supporting local firms, but we do not innovate as Israeli entrepreneurs do.

Our local firms complain about the tighter quota on lower wage foreign workers, who have lower wage bills, but Singaporean employees want higher wages. These are tough questions. It is no wonder that almost 70 per cent of the electorate voted for the proven party with an economic track record.

Relationships that drain your life

Most relationships are a waste of time. Some friends like to exaggerate, lie and show off. Others are negative and dull. These friends occupy your time and they affect your mental health.

Do not form relationships out of convenience. Do not fear rejecting friends or loved ones. Keep relationships light. Keep friends who share wisdom and can offer alternative views.

This does not mean you cannot be friendly and smile at co-workers. It just means being superficial and guarding your heart. Some older relationships are no longer useful. Let them go.

All relationships drain us. Cut off those who plays victim. They are a pain to be with. They keep us from feeling fulfilled. Keep sceptical people, they help to diversify your views.

You should simplify relationships at all costs and minimize burdensome relationships. Shallow relationships lasts longer because they are not draining.

Singapore Elections Experience

It all starts with filling in the nomination form correctly. You will need to find a commissioner of oaths and a couple of ascentors. Ascentors must live in the estate you are competing in.

Once the administrative matters are done, you should start campaigning. You will need to print your manifesto for the estate and voting cards that help nudge voters the right way. Be mindful that the messages must be written in 4 national languages. Tamil is really tough.

You will also need posters on wooden boards. You must be able to find volunteers to distribute the brochures and voting cards. Some volunteers should also help you put up the flags. Your election agent must make sure all these collateral are licensed and approved by the elections department.

You will also need help to put up at least 500 posters for one SMC or part of a GRC. Getting volunteers is a tough exercise because you may not be able to afford to pay them. As a candidate, you probably have used up most of your money on the deposit (more than 10k SGD) and on the collateral.

If you belong to a small party, your party may not be featured on the political broadcast. You will also have less opportunity to speak at rallies. You will also have to pay for the stage during your rally. The sound system will not come cheap too. Beyond payment, you will also have to find good and credible speakers to help you win votes.

Before the polling day, you will need to find dozen of polling agents who will station themselves at the polling centre. You will need to appoint an EA (this happens right at the start) to help brief them on relevant procedures. You will need some counting agents to help monitor the counting process. Both polling and counting agents need to be sworn in by a commissioner of oaths. This can cost up to $20 per person.

Things get messy on the polling day. You and your election agent should make sure your polling agents and counting agents have sufficient food. The polling hours can be very long.

No matter the outcome, you will need to speak to the media that day, to concede or to thank supporters for the victory.

Strategy: summary of Michael Porter’s work

Constant improvement is necessary but not sufficient. Best practices diffuses quickly. Competitors can quickly imitate management techniques, new technologies etc

Strategic position is not sustainable unless there are trade-offs with other positions. Trade-offs occur when activities are incompatible.

Positioning trade-offs are pervasive in competition and essential to strategy. They create the need for choice and purposefully limit what a company offers.

While operational effectiveness is about achieving excellence in individual activities, or functions, strategy is about combining activities.

Strategic fit among many activities is fundamental not only to competitive advantage but also to the sustainability of that advantage. It is harder for a rival to match an array of interlocked activities than it is merely to imitate a particular sales-force approach, match a process technology, or replicate a set of product features. Positions built on systems of activities are far more sustainable than those built on individual activities.

I prefer simplicity for my social media tools

Sometime ago, I left Facebook. My Facebook friends were posting rubbish and I was, unfortunately, addicted to consuming rubbish. I no longer saw the need to connect to acquaintances through Facebook.

I focused on Twitter and reduced my followers from more than 2000 to less than 100 active users. I also started posting my thoughts in a concise manner. Twitter forces everyone to produce short content. There are many users who simply tweet useless sentences, so I actively unfollow them. I see Twitter as a way to broadcast my thoughts. Sadly, it is true that content on Twitter is seldom curated and the number of users seem to be falling.

I also questioned the use of social media. Social media is like a weak network of relationships that is used for gossip and showing off. To catch up with my friends in real life, I go back to simple tools like sms and Whatsapp. I love Whatsapp for its simplicity. It does nothing except facilitate exchange of information. Where anonymity is important, I use Telegram because I can initiate secured conversation: messages are deleted automatically.

I also love to read the views of strangers. Medium serves as the perfect platform where writers take blogging more seriously compared to their counterparts on Tumblr and Blogger. Most blogs are rather inactive. Some still swear by Wordpress. But Wordpress is too complicated. Ownership of your own URL is no longer necessary. We live in a world of systems within systems. Rather than owning their URL, grow your presence in Medium.

The need for curated content

Everyday, we read content from social media platforms. The quality on social media content is low because there are no editors to check for the accuracy of the content and for the correctness of the language. This is akin to consuming junk food. Junk food keeps us happy and we get addicted to junk food.

It’s time to use your time wisely. Focus on highly rated essays on Medium as a start. Subscribe to a good news service provider like Financial Times or the Economist. You can be surer about the content and the information is more trustworthy. Enhance your productivity this way.

Your life, the Toyota Way

Minimalism is trending. But the concepts are embedded in the Toyota system.

First, avoid overproduction. Do not overwork. Do not do or speak more than necessary.

Second, do not accumulate waste at home. Throw what you don’t need away and clean up your workspace.

Third, do not procrastinate. Take rest as often as you need. Lie in bed, clear your mind or meditate as you wish. But do not procrastinate.

Fourth, place everything in the right order. If you need to exercise, place your treadmill in the most visible area.

Fifth, think before you move. Where would you like to go? What would you like to accomplish? Plan ahead.

Sixth, do everything perfect the first time. Rework is waste.

Seventh, meet standards. Meet requirements. If you need a 30sqm home, do not buy something larger. If your client requested for a 5 course meal, deliver the perfect 5 course meal.

We can also use the 3M model. Muri: avoid overburdening your machines, workers and yourself. Muda: reduce waste as we have explained above. Mura: prefer consistency to uneven operations.

If we apply these principles to our lives, we would have achieved minimalism.

7 simple rules to de-clutter your life

1.Avoid owning a car: Car ownership is expensive in cities. Think about the parking fees, cost of petrol and the interest on loan

2.Aggressively getting rid of things: You only use 20% of the things in your room in any one time. So it is important to get rid of them to free up distractions in your life.

3.Reduce the number of hobbies: Hobbies take up time and increase the likelihood of expenditure. Do a few things exceedingly well.

4.Read from curated news sources: Avoid using social media as news feeds. You might prefer insights from Financial Times or the Economist

5.Do one time at a time. No one can effectively multitask

6.Adopt a minimalist mentality at home and keep less furniture. Avoid distraction. Keep spaces clean and open so you get to focus quickly on important things

7.Have as few electronic devices as possible. These days, the process of updating and upkeeping devices can get complex

Singapore’s innovation policy

While I believe there are occasions justifying government’s role in innovation policy, Singapore government’s intervention is not always as successful as their counterparts in the United States.

The US government rewards those who deliver results. But Singapore funds those who generically address societal challenges and often, well packaged promises.

In Singapore’s case, if we still want to believe in the effectiveness of research agencies like A*Star, we need to find a group of civil servants who are able to take risk and to be accountable for results and to be technology experts. As I understand, most civil servants in charge of innovation policies are neither technology experts nor risk takers.

Perhaps it is time for an alternative innovation policy.

Investment wisdom

Costs are the best single predictor of the future performance of an investment. Keep costs lower — by tracking an index rather than investing in attempts to beat it — and for any given level of risk your returns should be a little higher.

Why investors need to know about indices.

Research by London’s Cass Business School shows that randomly chosen portfolios — that might as well have been picked by monkeys — are overwhelmingly likely to beat market-cap-weighted indices. But most monkeys failed to match equal-weighted indices, or indices based on most sophisticated measures to limit risk.

So the hierarchy is that simple equal weighting indices beat monkeys, who beat value-weighted indices like the S&P, which beats the average active manager (who nonetheless complains that the S&P benchmark is unfair).

Yet our money is still mostly run by active managers, while none that I am aware of is run by monkeys. For these reasons, and many more, we need to know more about indices.

Mr Markowitz’s comment on this: “One lesson from 2008 is that if it’s very complicated and you don’t understand it, maybe you shouldn’t buy it.”

Anyone with a simple rule that required them to keep 40 per cent in bonds and 60 per cent in stocks would have “rebalanced” — bought stocks — near the market’s nadir five years ago, he points out. 

Innovation from scientific research

Often, we see amazingly successful products emerging from research. The original research purpose can be entirely different from the eventual commercialized product. You would recall that Post-it notes emerged from a project to discover adhesive. Viagra emerged from heart disease research. Many claim that these innovation were random outcomes. This is an easy assumption because it does not require further discussion.

But we can breakdown the innovation path into two: Demand led or Supply led. We are familiar with demand led innovation because that is what marketers believe in. They think that it is always possible to discover what consumers value and create a product that meets that value. Yet, it is arguable that consumers may not be aware of their future demands. In many instances, disruptive technologies emerge from such supply led innovation.

We must allow scientists to follow their intuition in developing something that may not have clear commercial value. Because of their curiosity, they just might discover something that an entrepreneur can bring to the market years later. Scientific discovery is not always a straight path. In many cases, a seemingly useless discovery can spark off a bunch of ideas.

Existing demands can change. Consumers may decide to weigh product attributes differently over time. Firms have to make incremental changes to meet these incremental or changing demand. But meeting existing demand does not stimulate innovative activities. In an industry where every firm attempts to read demand more accurately, it leads to a commercial bloodbath and unsustainable operations.

Radical technologies create new markets. New markets are less defined but it gives a firm more parameters to grow

The case against large immigration flow

The economic effect of positive net immigration to Singapore is negative relative to older people working longer. When the population base remains stable and retirees extend working life, we have a higher GDP per capital.

If we continue to bring in more immigrations without an end, there will be more stresses on our infrastructure. Comparatively, except for healthcare infrastructure, old people demands lesser for road usage, transport services and natural resources.

Intuitively, it makes more sense to retrain our aged population and to encourage them to work longer than to expand our population without end. This is perhaps why Japan rather deal with an aging population than tolerant aggressive immigration.

(I understand the need for a critical mass of population. Perhaps 6.9m or 10m is the defined figure, but there must be an eventual limit to our planning parameters)

Want to invest in Commodities? — Must Read

Commodities usually involves high costs of storage and procurement. For this reason, investors have relied on futures or commodities firms to obtain commodities exposure. With the introduction of commodities ETF, there is renewed interests. ETFs provide cheap and transparent way to invest in commodities futures.

Factors affecting commodities comprise weather, geopolitical developments, supply constraints in physical production, unanticipated increases in demand as a result of prosperity in emerging markets, and incidents that create political or economic turmoil.

Recent crisis have shaken investor’s confidence in equities. This motivate investors to explore alternative investments in commodities. What are some ways an investor can invest in commodities?

Exchange Traded Funds provide the cheapest way to buy commodities exposure. These ETF track major commodities index
Exchange Traded Notes track non interest paying debt and the credit risks of commodities contracts. Payoff to the ETN depends on the counterparty risk of the futures issuer.

Unit trusts have higher fees than ETFs as they typically employ discretionary management methods to invest in commodities or companies in the businesses related to commodities.

An investor can also trade derivative contracts such as futures and swaps directly. The most direct way of investing in commodities is to buy the physical commodities incurring storage costs. One of the most indirect ways to gain exposure to commodities is to buy equities of related businesses.

Commodities have unique characteristics. Metals are seen as safe haven for investors and demand can be driven by the stability of the value of money. Soft commodities such as grain, crops and coffee generally react well to extraordinary detrimental events.

Agriculture sector is less dependent on economic conditions and more dependent on factors such as global weather. The low correlation (even lower than bonds) is an important tool for portfolio allocation. Commodity prices can also hedge inflation.

For long term investors, commodities will be a strategic allocation tool for the portfolio due to the low correlation with equities. For short term tactical allocations, commodities rise when inflationary pressures increase.

HDB is not your retirement plan

Depending on your HDB asset for long term retirement?

This is not an attack of the policy. I believe the HDB system of providing for housing is cool. But it is not a sufficient retirement asset provider. This article seeks to urge Singaporeans to prepare for adequately for their retirement.

Your HDB is a lease

When your house has a maximum lease of 99 years, you may be really just renting the space for 99 years. It is unlike the traditional freehold structure. In other words, the amount of money you are paying is considered advance rent. The financial implications are clear. The value of the lease decrease as your time runs out. A 40 year old HDB flat will be worth much lesser than a 99 year old HDB unit. This may not behave like a real asset.

You don’t sell, you just transfer your lease

When you decide to sell your HDB flat, you are actually transferring your lease to another family. HDB as your ultimate land lord needs to approve your unit’s assignment. If someone pays a premium to take over your unit, he believes that he is willing to pay a monthly rent more than you do. Perhaps this is due to the proximity to the MRT or a famous school.

Your CPF pays prepaid rental expense and it is not being invested!

Remember what you are using to pay for the HDB — CPF. Yes, in fact, you are using your retirement fund to pay for rent. How is this preparing for your future? If your HDB price does not increase or if you decide to live in the unit for 99 years, your unit will surely, without any possibility, be an asset. In fact, you are not well utilizing your CPF for investments and there is an opportunity cost.

What’s worst? You are prepaying 99 years of lease but you are borrowing to prepay the lease. HDB grants you a loan, makes interest off you and wants you to pay them the entire rent upfront. Do you ever want to pass your asset to the 2nd or 3rd generation? This is not possible in Singapore. Your lease ends in 99 years and the value of the house drops quickly after 50 years. Ask yourself, would you buy a flat with less than 50 years lease?

Simply put, you will still need to invest wisely. Do consider the lowest cost and broadest index funds!

Technical focus can shortchange development

In many consumer firms, managements become top-heavy with engineers and scientists.

This creates an environment favoring R&D at the expense of fulfilling consumer needs. The firm must remember that the core of competitive advantage is consumer value, not technical superiority. Therefore, technology development should be a supporting function to marketing and insights division.

However, there are cases are selected cash rich firms to be focused on technology development. Often, these cash rich firms can lead supply side innovation. They can create a technology for a non existing market. The argument is that the consumers do not always understand their own demands in the context of new technology. I suppose consumers did not demand instant messaging in the 1800s. They probably demanded for faster horses.

Summarily, most firms must consider technology as a function supporting product development. A few of these cash rich firms can take the lead to uncover supply side innovation.

Difficult Choices that Singaporeans cannot outsource to the Government

As the elections in 2015 closes, Singaporeans are starting to share their views more aggressively. Dormant political parties have also re-surfaced to share their party’s stances on national level policies.

The path towards growth is a straight forward one. There are only 3 factors to balance: 1. taxes, 2. wages and profit and, 3. subsidies. The size of our tax base is a function of wages earned by workers in Singapore and profits collected by business entities. Subsidies are simply put, negative cash outflow.

If we want to sustain our tax base for national growth without increasing tax rates, we must create better jobs, have more profitable firms in Singapore and be more prudent with introducing subsidies. We cannot create better jobs and grow businesses without managing scarcity of resources and adopting a more open immigration policy.

We have a dangerously low birth replacement ratio which cannot be addressed simply by offering women more child birth subsidies. Highly qualified women have the right to decide to focus on their careers. This trend will continue to erode our tax base. Instead of acknowledging some of these pressing issues, some political parties in Singapore have simply advocated for more social policies. They want more subsidies in areas such as healthcare, transport and retirement. But they also want the incumbent government not to raise tax. Their basis: the Singapore government has a lot of money in their reserves.

I find these policies regressive. I acknowledge that Singapore has to offer subsidies to some groups of low income earners. I also recognise that the definition of the underprivileged group may have to broaden overtime. But we have to do it carefully. After all, an increase in subsidies leads to higher economic burden for a nation. So we must set basic rules and principles for such definition.

Unfortunately, some Singaporeans may have fell for the sweet promises of more subsidies, greater government expenditure and a more manageable population, without a corresponding increase in tax. Singaporeans must decide for themselves, if they should face the hard facts or believe those who simply promise the sky.

Timeless advice on Investing

One should commit at least 20% of your income to savings. Such reserves are badly needed in urgent situations. The accumulation of your savings should be committed in liquid financial instruments. Liquidity is the primary consideration because you want the option to retrieve the money quickly at a low cost.

Some of my friends invest in land related structured products that lock up their money over a long time. Some others invest their money in alternative schemes. Always put your money in traditional instruments such as stock, bonds, exchange traded funds, mutual funds and money market funds.

Investing in a long term affair. Anyone that tells you otherwise isn’t a real adviser. Your returns are a function of cost and risk. The riskier your instrument, the lower your returns. The costlier your investments, the lower your returns. This is pretty straightforward.

There is no magic formula in investing. Diversification allows you to reap benefits of lower risk with the same expected return over time. The cheapest way to diversify is to put 2/3 of your money in stocks and 1/3 in bonds. Some recommend a 60/40 split. This is fine too, as long as you rebalance your portfolio annually. The proof of the benefits of diversification is mathematical. Giants in the financial industry have also urged individual investors to adopt such a simple investing rule. I recommend two books that you need to read; Common Sense on Mutual Funds and The Intelligent Investor.

My opinion is that you do not need a financial adviser. They increase your investing cost. The rules of investing is relatively simple. You do not need to outsource this responsibility. First, select low cost funds. On average, managed funds charge at least 2% over passion exchange traded funds. This reduces your overall returns in the long run by a gigantic amount. Beware of unique fee structures. Some fees can be hidden in sale charges, some in wrap accounts.

William F. Sharpe, a Nobel Laureate in Economics said “The first thing to look at is the expense ratio”. You will definitely earn the highest returns in a low cost index fund. An index fund that mirrors the market will also likely outperform any funds in the long term. In fact, more than 90% of funds fail to outperform the benchmark index. Funds with high expenses will under-perform their benchmark. Funds performance typically exhibit mean reversion. In other words, the worst fund of the year will more likely outperform the best fund of the year in future. To me, past performance means nothing. I will always only look out for index funds with the lowest costs.

Within the equity portion of your portfolio, simply invest in low cost index funds in the U.S and the U.K and in Asia. Avoid synthetic exchange traded funds because there is an additional layer of counter-party risk. Actually, you only need to hold a couple of funds in your entire lifetime. If you hold too many funds, it can be difficult to manage the exposure. Many of your funds will overlap significantly.

Why does GIC borrow from CPF, really?

In his article, “There is no reason for GIC and Temasek Holdings to borrow money from your CPF”, Mr Jeremy Chen upholds the government’s defence that it is not borrowing CPF monies as a cheap source of funds.

He misses the point that if the government were to borrow from the market on a large scale, Singapore’s credit rating would no longer be triple-A.

We can agree with the government’s defence if it were to borrow, say, 10% or 20% of GDP from the market. But if the government were to borrow up from the market up to 100% of our GDP, the credit ratings of Singapore will quickly fall. In turn, this affects how much the government can borrow further.

For the record, Singapore recorded an overall government debt of 105.5% of GDP in 2013.[1]

It is not news that Singapore and Japan enjoy reasonable credit ratings because the national debt of these countries is internal. The rationale behind such a credit rating is that Singaporean and Japanese citizens are unlikely exit their countries en masse suddenly, like in the case of a bank run.

The debates over CPF should rightly be focused on questioning the need for a compulsory annuity scheme for all account holders (see also our article for instance). But Singaporeans are right to also question the flows in the monetary system, not least when it affects their own money in their CPF accounts.

What we really need to fix about the CPF

Giving CPF account holders the free choice to decide what to do with their own retirement savings is the key.

In the midst of all the recent debates on the Central Provident Fund (CPF), and the government’s moves of raising the CPF minimum sum and enforcing a compulsory annuity scheme on all account holders, we must go back to the fundamental principle behind the CPF — that it is a compulsory savings plan for retirement.

The key issue, therefore, is that we must allow CPF account holders the free choice to decide whether to withdraw everything at 55, or opt into an annuity scheme, or opt for something in between.

If CPF account holders think they can benefit from the annuity if they live long well beyond 80 years of age, let them do so. If they want to withdraw their retirement savings in toto to invest in a private scheme that provides for a higher yield of annuities, let them do so.

CPF account holders do not withdraw their savings just for reasons of pleasure and holidays, although it is perfectly their right to do so. Health care costs, for themselves, for family members, for rare diseases, for their children’s further education — these are the things Singaporeans need to spend on in this non-welfare state system.

Compulsory annuity scheme for CPF: where is the justification?

So why is there a need for a compulsory annuity scheme for CPF? Where is the statistical substantiation that a mandatory annuity is needed across the board — is there a substantial enough proportion of the population that has such a dire lack of savings that warrants this? Is there such a substantial proportion of the population that is proven to be absolutely incapable of planning their retirement financially?

Our policy working group has not seen any such analysis or evidencing that typically accompanies government policymaking. Without this information, it is understandable why Singaporeans simply cannot accept the latest changes to the CPF.

Since the government has said that it is helping Singaporeans plan for retirement, then we would need to know — how were the projections for the minimum sum and the monthly annuity worked out? We don’t believe it is out in the public domain.

This brings us to the issue of income replacement rate (IRR) — what percentage of a worker’s income should we replace when he or she retires? Note that the higher the IRR, the greater the present burden on the worker who is at the threshold of retirement. The 2012 Chia and Tsui study on the IRR,[1] typically cited by the government, reported that the median male earner will be able to replace 70% of his wages when he retires, and female workers 64%. But these are the result of their academic study — it is not the government’s planning target, of which we have not been informed.

This makes the compulsory annuity scheme like a straitjacket for a madman — you are forced wear it to restrain yourself, so that you would not hurt yourself and those around you, we are told. But what if you are not a madman in the first place? What if you’ve been wrongfully diagnosed as a madman?

Management of the CPF funds

Then there are the issues about how the government should manage the CPF funds.

Our sovereign wealth funds should raise capital from international capital markets.

The default linkage of CPF funds to the sovereign wealth funds should be severed. This would give us the chance to rethink and restructure our retirement funding mechanisms.

The government has tried to defend the contention that CPF money a cheap source of funds for the sovereign wealth funds.[2] And we are told that government bonds still the most secure, with its AAA rating.

We can agree with this statement if the government were to borrow 10% or 20% of GDP. But note that if the government were to borrow up to 100% of our GDP, the credit ratings of Singapore will quickly fall, leading to very high borrowing rates.

In fact, it is not news that Singapore and Japan enjoy reasonable credit ratings because the national debt of these countries is internal. The rationale behind the credit ratings is that Singaporeans and the Japanese will not exit their countries en masse suddenly, like in the case of a bank run.

As such, we believe it is unfair for the government to claim that CPF is not providing a cheap source of funds.

Changes to CPF must pass through Parliament from now on

In conclusion, it is paramount that CPF account holders must have the choice and flexibility what is to be done with their retirement savings. They should have choice on whether to have their funds invested in the sovereign wealth funds or other instruments such as an equity index, a fixed income scheme, in funds or other such instruments. This would give Singaporeans the freedom of choice over the interest rates they wish to see from their savings, corresponding to their risk appetite.

And if they wish to withdraw all the CPF savings, whether to foot an urgent medical bill for treatment of a rare disease, for their children’s education, or for the holiday they have also dreamt about, they must be allowed to do so.

Finally, all changes to CPF policy must be presented to and passed by Parliament, and not be made a matter for subsidiary legislation. The political climate in Singapore on the CPF issue has reached such a point that the government ignores the voices of the people at its peril.

Is CPF Cheap funding source for Singapore Government?

The contest is Government can get cheap source of fund at below 2.5% in the open market given Singapore’s credit rating.

Authorities may say that they can borrow at below the existing 2.4 to 2.5% CPF rate. Some may agree with the Government given Singapore’s strong credit ratings.

This is especially in the case where Singapore borrows only 10% of 20% of GDP.

But what is unclear is if Government were to borrow 100% of our GDP (Our existing debt levels), the credit ratings of Singapore will quickly fall, leading to very high borrowing rates.

In fact, it is not new to commoners that Singapore and Japan enjoys reasonable credit rating because the national debt is internal. One would argue that local Japanese and Singaporeans will not exit Japan and Singapore respectively, immediately.Polices can also be put in place to guard the exit.

As such, it may be unfair for Government to claim that CPF is not providing a cheap source of funds.