Saturday, October 31, 2009

What are you risking?

Someone sent me a newsletter that essentially is an advertisement to buy some diversified funds. Attached in the newsletter is this picture which I found it very interesting. This is, of course, not the first time nor the last time I’ll ever see this picture. I’ll like to take some time to think about the myths portrayed in the diagram.

The diagram shows the investment risk pyramid, where the highest and presumably highest returns are placed right at the tip of the pyramid. At the base, and therefore forms the foundation of the whole pyramid structure, lie the no risk and presumably lower returns (in fact, negative returns). You can see that cash is defined as a no risk instrument.

I think everyone should define what they mean by risk. In the academia world, risk is volatility – or how much the price of the instrument varies from its mean price. In that aspect, then the investment risk pyramid would make perfect sense.

However, I find that definition of risk a bit inadequate for my laymen, non-academic purpose and $-minded purpose. Risk, at least for me, is defined by how much you can lose for how much you want to gain, i.e. I risk $10 to bet that this team will win, so that I can get back $15. My risk for earning $15 is $10. It does not really matter to me if the it yo-yo up and down since I know how much I can lose and how much I can win. I suppose in that sense, the pyramid does not make sense to me at all.

I know the risk of holding cash - it will be lower each year after accounting for inflation (which is around 3-5% pa). It's invisible but the effects can truly be felt. In the past, I can go to the food court with $3 and have a full meal. Now, I can barely fill my stomach or even buy anything with $3. So, I'm questioning if it's right to treat cash as 'no risk'. In fact, the risk of holding cash is that you will lose some 3-5% of it every year.

Going by the same argument, if you treat shares as the second highest risk group according to the investment risk pyramid, it doesn't make sense to me too. Yes, shares are highly volatile (actually, have you seen those illiquid stocks that pay high dividends before? Vicom, anyone?) hence it has one of the highest volatility. This means that it's 'risky' since the price fluctuates wildly about its mean. Well, they can go ahead and classify them as risky but I'll do it anyway. Not dabbling in shares intelligently is the most risky thing you'll want to happen to your financial health.

After reading through the newletter, the punchline came. It offers a product that gives a guaranteed annual return of between 2.30% to 2.55%. Sounds good isn't it? Better than fixed deposit - a fact that they never fail to mention.

Thanks but no thanks.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


On the subject of diversification, there had been many many articles and books written about it. I'm here to contribute more noise to it and provide another dimension on that subject.

Diversification works very well when the market is in order. We all know that the market is fairly efficient, but not entirely so all the time. To assume that each and every individual is fairly rational when they evaluate their own buy and sell transactions is, in my opinion, a much better one then the assumption that they are always rational. Thus, under usual market condition, we can expect that the market will behave in a fairly rationale manner.

When we diversify, we try to buy into different instruments in different asset classes, different sectors in the same asset class and perhaps different prices in the same counter (aka dollar cost averaging). The key point in diversification is to bet on something, yet with a hedge in case the event you are betting on did not happen. Academics had written at lengths on the optimum portfolio allocation, efficient frontier, blah blah blah. Basically, the idea is to buy non-correlated assets in a optimum mix so as to increase the returns of the portfolio without increasing its volatility.

However, there is something that needs to be thought about, and that forms the gist of this article.

In this new world where information flows fast and furious, the non-correlated asset classes - so carefully chosen in order to optimise your returns - are not so un-related anymore, especially so when the market goes into its moment of madness. What I'm trying to say is that the correlation between asset class is not a constant - it changes according to times, sometimes even direction. Take for example the usually un-questioned assumption that bonds and stocks goes in opposite direction.

The following are charts taken from yahoo! finance website. I compared the blue SP500 (^GSPC) and the red 10 yr treasury bond (^TNX) over a period of years.

You can see that there are periods of time where the bonds and stocks go in the same direction, despite the market truism that bonds and stocks are negatively correlated. So imagine, a person who blindly follows the oft repeated 'fact' that bonds are safer than stocks and that when stocks go up, bonds go down. Things are just not that simple.

But do not get me wrong - I'm not trying to say that portfolio allocation or even the idea of diversification is bullshit. It is important. However, blindly following market truism without having a thought in it can be dangerous to your financial health. Be very very careful of those one liner advice like "Buy low sell high" or "It's not about timing the market, it's about time in the market".

There are a lot of missing things not said in such truism, and don't they say "What is not said is more important than what is said"? Oops....that is also another truism for you to think about.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Newbie mistake in dividends

Let's say you have reit A with 10% dividend yield at $0.40, then another reit B with 10% dividend yield at $1.00, which would you buy?

Reit A, because it's cheaper so with the same capital I can own more so I'll get more dividend? That's what I thought till I calculated it out. Here it goes:

Supposedly I have $4000 to invest. For reit A, I can buy a total of 10 lots (4000/0.4 = 10,000). Thus, at the end of the year, I'll have a total of $400 in dividends. (0.40 x 0.1 x 10,000)

For reit B, I can buy a total of 4 lots (4000/1 = 4,000). For this reit, I'll have a total of.... ahem...$400 at the end of the year too (1 x 0.1 x 4000).

I was a little caught by this result. Haha, newbie mistake...tsk tsk... Conclusion - dividend yield depends on the dividend amt declared and the price of the stock you bought. If both stocks have the same dividend but one is cheaper in price than the other, it will not affect the amt of dividends you have if you have a fixed amt of capital to invest.