Sunday, November 27, 2011

Market commentary 27 Nov 2011 - European debt crisis dominates

Individual stock picking has not been effective since August 2011. Market movement is dominated by events related to the debt crisis in Europe. When markets make big moves up and down, the source of the news is almost always traced back to Europe. In such a backdrop, macro-analysis makes more sense than bottom-up investing in individual stocks.

The Straits Time Index, along with most global stock indices, bottomed on 5 Oct 2011. A new rally began the next day, topped on 28 Oct 2011 after which it started its decline. From the STI chart, the market went into correction on 18 Nov 2011. It was a short-lived rally.

What happened near 28 Oct 2011 which marked the start of the decline? Global markets anticipated a European rescue plan which explains the rally which started on 6 Oct 2011. After the rescue plan was announced on 27 Oct 2011, global stock market began its descent again. The rescue plan was not enough to reassure the markets. On the day of announcement, global stock indices actually made a massive rally. Then, it looked like the rally that started on 5 Oct was here to stay. On the next day, new worries emerge when Italian 10-year bond yields tops 6%. On Nov 25, 10-year Italian bond yields reached 7.23% despite mighty ECB buying the bonds. This is serious because (1) Italian bond market is the 3rd largest in the world. A disaster there is highly contagious. (2) Greece, Ireland and Portugal were forced to seek financial rescues when their bond yields reached around 6.5%. Italy today is worse (3) Italy has high debt(118% of GDP) and slow economic growth. How can Italian bond investors be confident that their debts can be repaid in full? Besides, further austerity (demanded by Germany) may slow down growth further or even tip country into recession.

One feature of the rescue plan was that investors who bought CDS (credit default swaps) on Greek debt as insurance will not be paid because the deal agreed to was voluntary. Now, investors who hedge their sovereign debt risks using CDS are scared. If investors cannot reduce credit risk by buying CDS as insurance, then they have to reduce credit risk by demanding higher bond yields. I think this is a major reason European bond markets came under increasing attack almost right after the rescue plan was announced.

In the past weeks, every time European bond yields go up, global stock indices will go down. In the coming weeks, European bond yields should be the key indicators to observe for equity investors.

I am waiting for something to happen for global stock markets to have a solid rally. This something is Germany agreeing to print money. Printing money is the least painful way to repay debt. I am not sure whether money printing is a good economic solution because there are side effects like inflation. However, I am highly confident that once Germany agrees to money printing, a global rally in equities lasting months will follow. See what happened in 2009 after massive money printing by the Fed.

The alternative to money printing is austerity. It is by no means superior to the money-printing solution. When debt levels are too high (like the PIGS countries) and requires strong future economic growth to pay down debt, then austerity actually worsens chances of paying off debt by weakening the economy. Furthermore, austerity dampen domestic consumption by cutting spending and raising taxes. Therefore, economic growth must come from strong exports. Problem for Europe is, export to who? If everyone else is   tightening their belts for austerity, who is going to buy the exports? Germany? The great export-machine of Europe to transform into a big import-sucker? European demographics worsen the problem. Too many old people, too few young people is bad enough for growth. Protective labour laws and culture further worsens the situation by protecting the old workers who are hard and expensive to fire at the expense of young workers, many of whom are on contract work, don't get good training opportunities or simply unemployed. Today, Spanish youth unemployment is a whooping 21.2%. When corrective economic measures are too painful, it may cause social riots. The situation can be highly unpredictable and chaotic. The last time a great nation was subjected to great economic pain, the people elected a madman into power. That mad-man was Adolf Hitler.

Of course, the best solution is economic growth from the creation of real productivity from real products/services of high social utility and not financial engineering techniques like printing money. However, you need plenty of good engineers for that. Engineers have bore the brunt of retrenchments in recent recessions. I know because I am an engineer. This time round, I will not be spared. I have received notice I will be retrenched. Today, there are very few students who want to study engineering and many of the best engineers have switched lines to work in banks.  In fact, many engineering students went straight to the banks after graduation without ever working as an engineer.

Eventually, I think Germany will allow money-printing to ease the European debt crisis because austerity is doubtful to be effective. I cannot think of other solutions that politicians can depend on now.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Get risk-free SGD160 from credit card application. Offer valid till 30 Nov 2011

It has often been said that there is no such thing as a free lunch. If something is too good to be true, it often is. Now, I am sharing something which is worth several free lunches and too good to be true. Unfortunately, I am not being paid any commission.

There is a wonderful offer from Standard Chartered that credits SGD80 into your credit card account once it is approved. I applied for two credit cards from Standard Chartered and received SGD160 in total. I just saw SGD160 in my account on internet banking. So, it sounds not only too good to be true but really true indeed.

This offer is valid till 30 November 2011. It is an offer that one simply cannot refuse. At least, I cannot think of a good reason why one should not take up this offer. Can you?

Some may wonder why Standard Chartered Bank is behaving so stupidly. Giving free money away? No, the people working there are smarter than most of us. We should not direct our thanks to SCB. We should thank the people who used their credit cards to spend money which they do not have, pay only the minimum sum on their monthly statement and roll over their credit card debts. Being a selfish man, I urge these people not to follow the advice in the link below, even though I am absolutely in love with the writer.

I dedicate the following song to the invisible credit-card friends who have made this wonderful offer possible. Pay attention to the lyrics.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

My favourite life insurance plan in Singapore - Aviva SAF Group Insurance for NSmen

4 Nov 2012: A new update for this plan has been written.

My favorite life insurance plan in Singapore for family protection in the event that I can no longer serve as a breadwinner for the family is the SAF Group Insurance for NSmen from Aviva. I am a policy-holder for several years already.

It is the best deal in Singapore that I know of that fits my criteria. It offers the best value for money per dollar for protection. For an annual premium of about SGD920, you are covered up to SGD600k. The coverage extends to high-risk activities like military training which I do not think is covered by other insurance policies.

There is an advance payment of 50% (limited to SGD100k) if the insured is diagnosed with a terminal illness. There is even a daily hospital cash benefit which pays up to SGD10 for every SGD50k assured. One thing I like about this policy is the partial cash rebate of the annual premium during good years. I know of no other policies that have a similar feature.

For parents with sons who are going for National Service soon, it is a policy worth considering. To my knowledge, it is the only policy that covers mishaps during National Service.

For more details, please visit and read the footnotes and the clauses yourselves. My brief summary cannot cover all the restrictive clauses that all buyers should be aware before buying.

If you know of a better deal, please tell me. I am confident none exists.

Please note that there is no savings or investment component in this insurance plan. In other words, you do not get back any money at the end of the day. This is why it is so much cheaper than the endowment, whole-life or investment-linked policies that insurance agents like to sell. It is a pure protection plan which is almost never recommended by insurance agents because it pays very little commission. So, if you want to buy this policy, do the agents a favor. Don't expect them to visit your home for this policy. If they do, it is reasonable that you will have to put up with sales talk for the higher commission products like the endowment, whole-life or investment-linked policies. Submit the application form yourself.

As a general rule, I never liked insurance products that mix investment or income. If I want income, I will go for fixed-income products like government bonds or fixed deposits. Insurance plans that offer income come with projected returns which cannot be relied upon. Ignorant customers can be easily taken in by the aggressive projected returns to lure them into buying. It is easier to analyze fixed-income products with guaranteed returns than insurance plans with projected returns. The insurer actually has an incentive to use unrealistic projected returns to boost sales. Consumers should be aware of this risk when assessing these kinds of insurance products.

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...