Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Minimum wage - not easy to get it right

The minimum wage has lofty goals of helping the poor. Prominent figures whom I deeply respect have voiced their public support on this policy. I am sure these people have the kindest of intentions. However, it is highly questionable whether the effect of the minimum wage is really beneficial to the poor.

If the minimum wage is set too high, it will create unemployment to people who are worth less than the minimum wage. No employer (unless he is your father) will pay a worker more than what he thinks the worker is worth. Anything more will be charity. It is not fair to expect charity from bosses because they set up companies to make money, not give away money. In a capitalistic economy, a minimum wage which is set too high will lead to higher unemployment among the young, the old and the unskilled. The young will be hit because they still have not accumulated enough work experience to be worth more than the minimum wage. The old will be hit because their market value has depreciated below the minimum wage over the years. The unskilled obviously do not have the skills to be worth the minimum wage. They will be condemned to permanent unemployment because they will not be employed in the first place. Not being employed denies them the opportunities to acquire useful skills on the job which can lead to higher salaries. At least exploitation gives the low-wage worker hopes of gaining useful skills which allows him to command a higher salary later. By protecting workers against exploitation with minimum wage, more potential damage is done. It is exploitation that allows low-paid workers to have on-the-job training opportunities that hopefully will raise their worth later on. They can job-hop to higher-paying jobs after getting enough experience, thanks to exploitation. I think if people recall their job history, some probably felt exploited during their younger days with low salary. But it was this exploitation that allowed them to job-hop to higher-paying jobs later on. Surely, temporary exploitation is better than permanent unemployment.

The most seriously hit will be the poor because they are the group with the most number of people whose market value falls below minimum wage. Instead of helping the poor, the minimum wage may end up raising unemployment among the poor. Given that social welfare in Singapore is near non-existent (due to low taxes), the consequences will be terrible for these people.

If the minimum wage is set too low, one might as well not have this rule in the first place. Why scare off investors and businessmen unnecessarily and create new administrative inconvenience? 

Even if the minimum wage is set optimally initially, it will not stay optimal for long. The optimum level will be fluctuating with economic conditions. It is impossible for government officers to adjust the minimum wage optimally with changing economic conditions. If they can be so in tune with the economy, they might as well speculate in the financial markets and make a bundle.

Because it is so hard to set the optimum minimum wage, I think we should leave wages to be set by the invisible hand of the free market than the well-intentioned but clumsy hand of bureaucrats.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Gambling - Things you must avoid to preserve your wealth

I hate to write a blog post using someone's misery as a starting point. However, I think the case of the Singaporean businessman who lost SGD26 million in 3 days at RWS casino can be converted into a good social cause. His predicament can serve as a useful lesson and reminder to Singaporeans on the danger of gambling. Dear Sir, your misery will not be in vain if this is of any consolation to you. I am sorry.

A businessman without proper risk management is subjected to high risk of failure when bad luck strikes. The gambler was a successful businessman who built up and grew his company over a few decades. So, he probably is armed with the proper risk management concepts. Had he applied his business training to gambling, he would not have sustained the heavy losses. This tells us something about the nature of gambling. There is something about human nature and our basic instincts that drive us to self-destruction once gambling become an addiction. An intelligent well-trained mind is no protection against this vice.

I have stepped into a casino only once and am no authority on it. Read on if you are still interested.

In all the games, the casino always has a winning edge. This is not surprising, otherwise the more visitors the casino receive, the more money it will lose. Although the odds of losing is higher for the gamblers, it does not mean that the gamblers will surely lose on every visit. However, every gambler must surely lose eventually if they play long enough with the odds against them. The mathematical law of large numbers guarantees that.

This is why the casinos intentionally set their house edge low. The purpose of the low house edge is to offer gamblers some hope of winning, thereby enticing them to play more and lose. If the house edge is too high, the gamblers will simply walk away or play less. Then, the law of large numbers cannot work its magic for the casino. You have to let the gamblers win sometimes to keep coming back. Mathematics ensures that gamblers will eventually lose with 100% certainty as long as they keep coming back.

The SGD100 tax that deters Singaporeans from visiting the casinos actually work against them once they are inside the casino. Once you pay SGD100, you will be tempted to stay longer to fully utilize that SGD100. The longer you stay, the more you play, the surer you will lose. The law of large numbers guarantees your loss.

Being a retail investor, I have given some thought to sizing one's bet. When your winnings odds are high, you bet big. When your winning odds are smaller, you bet smaller. In both cases, your winnings odds must be positive to your favor. If your winnings odds are negative against you, the optimal betting size is zero. If the odds are against you, you don't bet. In other words, you should never ever visit the casino. If you love money, please don't.

Even in the unlikely event that you make money from your casino visits, you will lose out in other ways. Your career prospects will be negatively impacted. No boss feels comfortable with an employee who likes gambling. Your boss will consider you a risk to the company if he learns of your regular visits to the casino. Will you embezzle company funds? Will you receive kickbacks from the suppliers? Even if your job has little contact with money (like my engineering job), your boss will still be worried that your performance will be affected by the distractions - distracted by the worries from the losses or distracted by the easy winnings and the greed to make even more. Either way, productivity suffers. All bosses hate that.

Some people think they can become professional gamblers and beat the casinos, drawing inspiration from the MIT card-counters. Making money in this way is possible in the short-term but not sustainable in the long-term. The casinos can simply bar you from entering once you become a consistent winner. Then, all your long hours of training become wasted. The odds of getting rewarded by working hard at your day job and doing something useful is higher than training hard to become a professional gambler.

If you have to visit the casino, set a pre-determined amount that you will lose. Once this amount is lost, leave the casino. The time to set this amount is before you enter the casino, not after. Once inside, one may be too carried away by the beautiful faces and colorful lights to make proper risk-management decisions. By following this practice, the casino becomes a place of entertainment minus the harmful social effects. At the same time, our fellow countrymen working at the casinos can keep their jobs. Treat the gambling losses as entertainment expenses. If you are lucky, you might even get paid for the entertainment.

As for myself, my personal policy is to avoid the casino totally. Some people think they are disciplined enough never to become addicted. They think they can keep their gambling trips as a source of entertainment only. It is like telling yourself I will try drugs just for the sake of experiencing new things but I will not get addicted to it. In the first place, why take the chance? Is there a meaningful gain in exchange for the risk? Hence, I do not even want to give myself a chance to get tempted by getting near to the casino. If smarter and more successful people like the SGD26m businessman have succumbed to this vice, what more for mere mortals like me?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Paying off credit card debts is the best investment you can make

If you have credit card debts on hand, the best investment you can make is to pay off the debts. Guaranteed!

The typical annual interest rate for credit cards is around 20%. If you pay off this high-interest debt, it is as good as making a sure-win investment gain of 20%. Even Warren Buffett cannot guarantee you such a performance.

If you prefer to let the credit card debts to rollover, please go back to school and study compound interest. At 20% compound interest, even a tiny amount of debt can wreak severe damage to your pocket over time. Don't believe? Use a spreadsheet and calculate the amounts you will have to pay over the years. This is the best way to appreciate the power of compounding.

A good understanding of compound interest has convinced me to avoid all high-interest loans like unsecured personal credit lines and credit card debts. On the other hand, I have been encouraged to save and invest hard to reap the power of compounding to my favor.

Picking the right Valentine. A much more difficult task than picking the right stocks

9 years ago, I wrote about choosing your Valentine from a value investing standpoint. What I wrote then still stands today, Beauty is over...