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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Diversification: Will it make you rich?

Dr Larry Haverkamp
July 2015

The first rule of investing is to diversify.

Why is that so important? It's because if you own a few investments, you will reduce risk without reducing returns. This is valuable, costs nothing and is what economists call "a free lunch".

If you have risky investments, like stocks or property, the best way to reduce the risks is to buy bonds. It works like this: When the economy is strong, stocks do well and interest rates rise. Because of a peculiarity of bonds (that the coupon is fixed), higher interest rates make bond prices fall.

Did you catch it? When stock prices go up, bond prices go down. Academics call it "negative covariance" and it is very good for diversification as it reduces a portfolio's volatility. Better still, it reduces risks without reducing returns. Nothing but bonds have such a large negative covariance, which makes them very special.

The drawback is bonds are a low-risk investment, so it is hard to get this excellent risk-reducing feature without opting for low risks and returns. Suppose that isn't what you want? You might want high risks and returns. Sorry, then you are out of luck. When you buy bonds, you get the good with the "possibly not-so-good" and  there is no way around it.

Except for one thing. You can also diversify over time by staggering your buying or selling.

Bill Gates does this. He sells a fixed per cent of his Microsoft stock every quarter and has been doing it for the past decade. His buddy Warren Buffett does the same. Warren gives away five per cent of his wealth every year, and incidentally, he gives it to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation since he judges Bill Gates to be the best in philanthropy.

You can do it too. Just invest continuously in equal-sized investments. Of course, you will get even more risk reduction if you also buy bonds but it may push you into a lower risk-return category than you want. If it does, time diversification is the best you can do, but it's good enough as it smooths the ups and downs that occur over time.

The next big question is should you do it yourself (DIY) by buying shares in the market? Or should you purchase a fund, which gives instant diversification?

Professionals typically advise buying a fund. But many of these pros have a vested interest since the fund pays them a commission. Is this a conflict of interest? Ha, ha, ha. That's a good one!

If you go the fund route, you have three choices: An investment-linked product (ILP), a unit trust or an exchange-traded fund (ETF). Of these, I recommend the ETF. It is almost sure to be "passively managed", which means it is an "index fund". This is the opposite from an "actively managed fund", which is what we have for 95 per cent of the ILPs and unit trusts sold in Singapore.

The problem is the costs (yearly expense ratios) of actively managed funds are always higher than passively managed ones. The higher expenses are probably not justified since the average returns of these funds are not higher.

But wait. Instead of investing in the average fund, why not go for the best? Buy a "top 10 per cent fund"! The only thing wrong with that is the top 10 per cent are not "persistent", which means each year sees a different group of funds in the top 10 per cent.

Of course, fund managers don't like these findings and rarely bring them up when advising clients. Adding to the conspiracy of silence is that ETFs don't advertise (to keep expenses low) while actively managed funds do. That's why you don't see these results in newspaper ads, on the MRT train or anywhere else.

It all points to ETFs being a far better choice than actively managed funds.

There is a third choice, which is DIY. It means you choose which stocks to buy. But is this a good idea since you don't have expertise in stock picking?

Yes. It is a good idea. That's because expertise doesn't matter in this game. Recall that actively managed funds, with lots of high-priced "experts" do not out-perform index funds and the reason is all information available to experts is already included in the stock price. The experts will out-perform only if they have special or insider information, which is rare and even if they have it, it is probably illegal to use.

Finally, is DIY better than an ETF? I think so. First, you can have more fun with DIY since you can pick 15 or more shares to eliminate volatility and you'll probably achieve average returns, just like an ETF. But who knows? You may be a great stock picker. So play around, have some fun and it won't cost much. Online brokerage costs are only 0.6 per cent for a round trip (buy and sell) for both DIY and ETFs.

The second cost is yearly expenses and it is true these are super low for ETFs. But they are not zero. For DIY, however, they are zero. You buy shares and there is no charge for holding them.

In comparison. unit trusts and ILPs are much more expensive for both annual expenses and initial commissions. An adjunct professor at SMU, Dr Haverkamp contributes this column weekly to help our readers understand money matters better.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Avoid big losses

5 July 2015
Dr Larry Haverkamp

THE best investing advice may be the simplest: Avoid big losses. It's easy to get caught up in the excitement of a deal and then you dive into a bad one. And it is even worse if it's a scam since you not only lose your money, you feel stupid too.

Take an obvious scam like my new e-mail friend from Nigeria, Olami Onojowan, who just wrote to say he wants to give me $30 million if I will send him $500 to show my sincerity. No one would fall for that, right?

Apparently some do. A former scammer in Nigeria said he averaged seven replies for every 500 e-mails he sent out.

Your best and maybe only protection is the standard advice: "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is". But that advice is easy for the scammers to short circuit. How? just scale back a bit and make the deal sound "almost too good to be true".

That was behind the evil genius of the biggest scam of the century (so far): The Madoff Fund. Bernie Madoff knew it would be a sure tip-off if he promised 50 per cent yearly returns. So he offered something less. He paid investors an average of 10.5 per cent per year for 17 years. Of course, it was a Pyramid scheme with the "return" to old investors coming from new investors' money.

Bernie made no guarantees, although the Madoff Fund's past returns showed a good track record with never a loss. Even in 2008, at the depths of the great recession, his fund posted gains of 5.6 per cent while the US market lost 38 per cent. (Bernie was finally caught in December 2008.)

The Madoff Fund returns were high but believable, and so the reliable rule "If it sounds too good to be true ..." failed.

Here's another one: Have you heard of crowdfunding? It is a new way to raise money using online sites like and

Need a million dollars to develop faster-than-light space travel? No problem. Post it on a crowdfunding site and try your luck. You can borrow money, or issue shares if you don't feel like repaying. The concept has caught on and it might even replace banks some-day (in the distant future). Crowdfunding always seemed to me that it had the potential for a Producers-type of scam.

Remember the movie The Producers? It's about two guys who wrote a play called Springtime for Hitler in Germany and they made it so distasteful that it couldn't possibly succeed.

These scammers sold 400 per cent ownership and sat back to wait for it to flop on opening night. To their amazement, the play was a hit and they couldn't repay even a fraction of the money, so they were sent to jail (where they immediately started scamming inmates).

It has finally happened with crowd-funding and in June this year, the US Federal Trade Commission charged Erik Chevalier with raising US$35,000 ($47,000) to fund a monopoly-like board game. It was over-subscribed and in just 30 days, Erik received US$122,000 from 1,200 eager investors.

He immediately declared that his venture had failed and apologised to investors, saying: "Every possible mistake was made, some due to my inexperience in board game publishing ...". But he kept the money anyway, which triggered the US government's charges.

The case is pending but Kickstarter said that it "cannot guarantee creators' work". It also doesn't offer refunds and proudly said: "Kickstarter creators have an incredible track record when it comes to following through on their promises..." Maybe. But this one didn't work out.

Can you call it a scam if it's legal? You be the judge.

In my opinion, gambling is the worst legal scam. People seem to think a little fling is harmless as long as it doesn't take food out of the mouths of their kids. But why do it? Why throw that money away? No one has ever won in the long run from playing games of chance.

Worse still, who understands the odds? Does anyone playing 4-D, Toto, horse racing or sports bets understand the "house advantage", which is the per cent that Singapore Pools, the race track or the casino takes from the average bet?

It is usually small but the profit comes from volume and if you play long enough, you are sure to lose your initial stake. To add to the confusion, the odds are different for each game, so it is hard to know which game offers the best odds (but "best odds" only means you will lose your money more slowly).

One more sure-lose but perfectly legal investment is jewellery. As a rule of thumb, the value of jewellery falls by 50 per cent the moment you walk out of the shop. It is a nice way of saying that a $100 gold bracelet has only $50 worth of gold. You pay mostly for "workmanship".

My wife read up on all the problems,with investing in jewellery and asked me not to buy her any more for special holidays like birthdays and anniversaries. Being a good husband, I follow those instructions.

By the way, a great place to check for major local scams is the National Crime Prevention Council's web site at:

An adjunct professor at SMU, Dr Haverkamp contributes this column weekly to help our readers understand money matters better.