Monday, 22 May 2017

A Comparison of Shipping Trusts' Business Models

You might be wondering why I am still writing about shipping trusts' business models when there is only 1 shipping trust left. This is because for investors in First Ship Lease Trust (FSL), it is useful to understand the differences between the business models of FSL and Rickmers Maritime to assess whether FSL would go the way of Rickmers Maritime and be wounded up. 

On the surface, both FSL and Rickmers are shipping trusts, however, their business models (at least in the initial stages) are quite different. As an analogy, supposed you wish to become a Uber driver but do not own a car. There are 2 ways to obtain a car, either rent a car from a car rental company, or buy a car by taking out a loan from a finance company. From this perspective, a car rental company is very different from a finance company. Rickmers is in the rental business, whereas FSL started off as a finance business (however, over time, FSL became more and more like a rental business for reasons discussed later).

The business model and risks between a car rental and a finance company are very different. A car rental company would want rental of its vehicles (return on capital) for as long as possible, while a finance company would want return of its loan (return of capital) as quickly as possible. Supposed a car has an economic lifespan of 10 years, a car rental company would hope to rent out the car for the full 10 years, whereas a finance company would hope to recover all its loan by no later than the 7th year.

Going back to FSL and Rickmers, both of them bought 4,250 TEU Panamax container ships in 2008 and leased them out. The structure of the deals shows the differences between a rental and a finance business. FSL assumed the ships have economic lifespan of 25 years and leased them out on a bare boat charter for 12 years. At the end of 12 years, the lessee has an option to buy out the ships. Rickmers assumed the ships have economic lifespan of 30 years and leased them out on a time charter for 10 years. Assuming that the bare boat charter equivalent (BBCE) revenue of a time charter is 65% of the time charter revenue, the cashflows for both shipping trusts work out as follows.

FSL Rickmers
Purchase Price  $70.0M  $72.0M
Daily Charter Rate (Time Charter) NA  $26,850 
Daily Charter Rate (BBCE)  $18,315   $17,453 
Annual BBCE Revenue  $6.68M  $6.37M
Charter Duration (Years) 12 10
Buyout Option Price  $30.0M NA
IRR @ End of Charter 2.16% -2.17%
IRR @ End of Charter with Buyout 6.20% NA

From the table above, the annual BBCE revenue generated by Rickmers in a rental transaction is less than that by FSL in a financing transaction. This is because a financing lessee has to make principal repayments whereas a rental lessee does not. Thus, at the end of their respective charter periods, FSL would be able to recover all its capital and generate a positive annualised return of 2.16% without considering the buyout option. If the lessee chooses to exercise the buyout option, the annualised return would increase to 6.20%. On the other hand, Rickmers would not have recovered all its capital at the end of the 10-year charter period. It would only do so in Year 12. This is not to say that Rickmers' rental model is entirely bad. If it could find shipping companies to rent its ships for the entire 30-year economic lifespan, its annualised return would be 7.96%, much higher than FSL's 6.20%. Unfortunately, in a market downturn where there is little demand for ships, a ship finance business like FSL would be able to recover its capital faster than a ship rental business like Rickmers.

As you can see, the return for FSL is higher if the lessee exercises the buyout option. In fact, the buyout option is probably designed to entice the lessee to exercise it. Based on the purchase price of $70.0M and straight-line depreciation of 25 years, the annual depreciation charge would be $2.8M. At the end of the 12-year charter period, the accumulative depreciation would be $33.6M, leaving the ship with a book value of $36.4M. Assuming that the market value approximates the book value had there been no market downturn, the buyout option price of $30.0M would represent a discount of $6.4M to the lessee. It is actually in FSL's favour if the lessee takes up this option, as it would get back another $30.0M by Year 12, which could be used to initiate a new financing transaction.

From the above example, it also shows that the risks of a rental business and a finance business are different. The main risks of a rental business are market risks, i.e whether it can find shipping companies to rent its ships at good rates. On the other hand, the main risks of a finance business are credit risks, i.e. whether the lessee has the ability and willingness to make principal and interest payments on the loan as scheduled. Going back to FSL, the 3 Panamax container ships that FSL has are leased to Yang Ming Marine Transport Corp. They generate an annual BBCE revenue of $20.0M even though the annual BBCE revenue at current market rates is estimated to be only about $1.6M, assuming 50% utilisation rate (see Sustainability of First Ship Lease Trust's Cashflows for the estimate). If Yang Ming were to default or fail, those lucrative charters would be lost and the viability of FSL would be in question. Thus, FSL's main risks are the credit risks of its lessees.

There is still one more difference between FSL's and Rickmers' business models. FSL's preference is for bare boat charters while Rickmers specialises in time charters. In a bare boat charter, the lessee has to bear vessel maintenance costs, whereas in a time charter, the lessor has to bear these costs. Like a car financing transaction, the lessee (or car "owner") has to pay repair cost or mandatory vehicle inspection cost for the car. The finance company is not responsible for these costs. Whereas in a car rental transaction, the lessee can ask the rental company for a replacement car or deduct rental charges for the period the car is not available for use. In times of market downturn, every cent counts, and FSL's bare boat charters reduce the operating costs needed to run the business compared to time charters.

Having said the above, I mentioned that FSL started off as a ship finance business but gradually became more of a ship rental business like Rickmers. As mentioned earlier, the key risks that a finance business faces are credit risks of its lessees. If the lessee were to default, the ships would be returned to the trust and the trust would have to find new charterers at charter rates that are likely to be lower than the previous charter rates. That is when a finance business becomes like a rental business and faces the same risks. FSL had encountered lessees defaulting previously. In addition, many of its existing charters will be expiring in the next few years. Given the current low market price of ships, none of its lessees are likely to exercise the buyout options. As the charters expire, FSL would progressively become a ship rental business.

Since we are at this topic of shipping trusts' business models, there used to be another shipping trust called Pacific Shipping Trust, which was delisted from SGX in 2012. At inception, its business model was also different from that of FSL or Rickmers. It was set up by Pacific International Lines to monetise its fleet of container ships. Going by the earlier analogy of the Uber driver, this would be a case in which the Uber driver owns a car, but decides to do a sale-and-leaseback. It too became more of a rental business after it expanded its business to lease ships to other companies besides its parent company.

It is probably a moot point now that FSL is progressively becoming a ship rental business, but starting off with the ship finance business model during its initial stages helps to manage the downturn in the shipping industry.

P.S. I am vested in FSL. Also, I will be overseas next week and will not be able to respond to your comments until I return.

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Sunday, 14 May 2017

Sustainability of First Ship Lease Trust's Cashflows

Last week, I blogged about the estimated current valuation of First Ship Lease Trust (FSL) and mentioned that since the current market value of the ships exceeds the loan amount, the probability of successful refinancing is quite high. However, the more important factor in determining successful refinancing is whether future cashflows are sufficient to meet the loan obligations. In this post, I will estimate the future cashflows of FSL and determine whether it is a viable business going forward.

For FSL to be viable, its cash inflows must be sufficient to cover its cash outflows. On a Bare Boat Charter Equivalent (BBCE) basis, the annual cash inflow must be able to cover the trust's operating expenses, loan principal repayment and interest expenses. For FY2016, the trust operating expenses (comprising management fees, trustee fees and other trust expenses) amount to USD4.8M, loan principal repayment is USD42.7M (excluding early repayment) and interest expense is USD9.6M. The total non-discretionary cash outflow is USD57.1M. Assuming that loan principal repayment remains the same after refinancing, the only item that will change much from year to year is interest expense. Thus, FSL must be able to generate cash inflows of between USD50M to USD57M annually, otherwise, there is a risk that it might run out of cash and be liquidated in a fire sale like Rickmers Maritime.

On the cash inflow side, FSL generates revenue from 3 types of charters, namely, voyage charter, time charter and bareboat charter. In a voyage charter, FSL acts as a shipping company like NOL to provide a service to ship goods between places. It bears all the costs necessary to provide the service. Among the 3 types of charters, on a comparable basis, voyage charters generate the highest revenue and costs. In addition, it also has to bear the risks of finding sufficient goods to ship at good freight rates. The consolidation of container shipping lines last year shows the high risks that shipping companies have to bear for providing voyage charters. As far as possible, FSL avoids having voyage charters.

At the other end of the spectrum, in a bareboat charter, FSL only provides the ship. All other expenses are borne by the charterer. Thus, bareboat charters generate the lowest revenue and costs among the 3 types of charters. This is the preferred type of charters for FSL, as the cashflow is the most steady.

In the middle of the spectrum are time charters, in which FSL bears the cost of the ship, crew, dry-docking, ship insurance, etc. while the charterer bears the cost of the bunkers, port charges, etc. Based on the financial results for FY2016, the BBCE revenue of a time charter is about 60% of the time charter revenue.

Besides the 3 types of charters, FSL also entered into a pool or Revenue Sharing Agreement (RSA) for some of its ships. Due to an oversupply of ships, FSL might not be able to find a charterer for some of the ships. Thus, it entered the ships in a pool to share revenue among similar ships. As an example, supposed there are 10 ships in a pool, but only 8 ships are hired on average. The 10 ships will share the revenue generated from the 8 ships. Thus, each ship will get only 80% of the revenue the ship would have in a time charter. Hence, for ships in a pool or RSA, there is a potential discount factor to consider in estimating the BBCE revenue based on the utilisation of the ships in the pool.

After discussing the various types of charters and pool arrangement, can FSL generate sufficient cash inflows of between USD50M to USD57M every year to meet its operating expenses and loan obligations? While I cannot predict what charter rates FSL can obtain in the future, we can at least assess whether FSL can generate sufficient cashflows based on historical charter rates. In its AGM presentation, FSL disclosed the current and average time charter rates in the past 5 years for its ships. Fig. 1 below compares FSL's charter rates against the 5-year average and current time charter rates in the market, as well as FSL's BBCE revenue in FY2016 against the BBCE revenue implied by the 5-year average and current time charter rates. As shown in the figure, some of the charter rates have fallen significantly. The last column provides a rough estimate of the sustainable BBCE revenue assuming that the existing charters are reset to the lower of the 5-year average or current charter rates. This figure also takes into consideration the possible utilisation rate for ships currently or likely to enter into a pool when their existing charters expire.

Fig. 1: Charter Rates and Estimated Sustainable BBCE Revenue

Based on the assumptions in the figure, the estimated sustainable BBCE revenue is USD43M, which is below the non-discretionary cash outflow of between USD50M to USD57M mentioned earlier. Thankfully, the BBCE revenue will not fall immediately from USD72.9M in FY2016 to USD43M as some of the more lucrative charters will not expire until mid 2020. Fig. 2 below shows the estimated annual BBCE revenue for each type of ships from FY2017 till FY2022.

Fig. 2: Estimated Annual BBCE Revenue

From FY2017 till FY2019, FSL is still able to generate BBCE revenue of USD63M, before falling to USD53M in FY2020 and USD43M in FY2021 and beyond. Based on the above estimated annual BBCE revenue and annual cash outflows, the year-by-year cashflows are estimated below.

Fig. 3: Estimated Annual Cashflows

Thankfully for FSL, just as the BBCE revenue begins to fall from FY2019 to FY2021, the loan principal repayment also ends around the same period, resulting in positive cashflows every year. By FY2021, FSL would have repaid its entire loan of USD192.5M and the remaining cashflow could be used to resume distributions to shareholders or buy new ships. The estimated balance sheet, excluding the value of ships which is subject to variable impairment losses, is shown in Fig. 4 below.

Fig. 4: Estimated Balance Sheet

By FY2020, the current assets (CA) would have exceeded the total liabilities. The value of FSL would be CA - Total Liabilities + Market Value of Ships.

Hence, based on the estimated future cashflows of FSL, it is likely to meet the loan obligations, providing another reason for believing why refinancing will likely to be successful.

Having said the above, the viability of FSL will depend very much on the Panamax containers, which are very lucrative when compared against the current charter rates in the market. They are currently leased to Yang Ming Marine Transport Corp. If Yang Ming were to default or fail, FSL will run out of cash unless the banks allow it a longer period to pay down the loan. This is definitely a high-risk game.

P.S. I am vested in FSL.

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Sunday, 7 May 2017

Valuation of First Ship Lease Trust

A reader recently alerted me to the undervaluation of First Ship Lease Trust (FSL). It is a stock that lost a lot of money for me, having bought it at $1.27 in Oct 2007, averaged down at $0.42 in May 2009, before finally throwing in the towel at $0.225 in Jan 2012. Together with Rickmers Maritime, the shipping trusts were the worst investments in the 19 years that I had invested in the stock market.

However, despite the heavy losses, I am prepared to relook at it 5 years after I sold it. FSL is in the business of financing/ leasing ships. The shipping industry has been in the doldrums for many years, and this has resulted in poor financial performance for shipping companies and trusts. Rickmers recently decided to wind itself up, with no residual value for its shareholders, despite reporting a net asset value of USD0.21 as at Dec 2016. Its ships, listed in the balance sheet at USD499.6M, fetched only USD113M in a fire sale.

FSL is facing similar business conditions. In my opinion, there are 2 key challenges facing FSL. The first is an immediate one. There is a term loan currently valued at USD192.5M which is due to be repaid in Dec 2017. If refinancing is not successful, FSL will face liquidation and potential fire sale like Rickmers. However, if refinancing is successful, the next challenge is sustainability of its cashflows. A lot of its existing ship charters will expire in 2017 and the next few years. These charters were entered into many years ago when charter rates were still high, but have fallen significantly in the past few years. When the charters expire, the ships will earn much lower rates, posing questions over whether it could generate sufficient cashflow to meet its annual debt repayment obligations. Finally, if supposed there is still sufficient cashflow left after meeting its debt obligations, there would be opportunities to restart distributions to shareholders, which have been stopped since May 2012.

What is my estimated current valuation of FSL? A lot would depend on the value of the ships. If, like Rickmers, its ships could only fetch 23% of their book value, there would be nothing left for shareholders. Thankfully, due to the structure of its loan, we can get some indication of the market value of FSL's ships, which are listed at USD418.4M as at 1Q2017. 

The interest margin that FSL has to pay on its loan is dependent on the Value-to-Loan (VTL) ratio, as shown below.

VTL Ratio Loan Margin
100% to 140% 3.0%
140% to 180% 2.8%
Above 180% 2.6%

In 4Q2016, it reported a loan margin of 2.8%, which means that the VTL ratio is in the region of 140% to 180%. In 1Q2017, it reported a loan margin of 3.0%, which means that the VTL ratio has dropped to between 100% to 140% due to the decline in market value of the ships. In the Annual General Meeting presentation on 28 Apr 2017, FSL also mentioned that the VTL ratio is above 125% despite vessel valuations declining considerably during 2016 and 2017 to date. Based on the above information, we can work out a high and low estimate of the current valuation of FSL. The high estimate is based on VTL ratio of 140% reported in 4Q2016 while the low estimate is based on VTL ratio of 125% reported in 1Q2017.

4Q2016 1Q2017
Loan 223.2M 192.5M
Loan margin 2.80% 3.00%
VTL Ratio 140% 125%
Ship Value (Secured by Loan) 312.4M 240.6M
Ship Value (Unsecured by Loan) 15.0M 15.0M
Trade Receivables 3.9M 5.3M
Cash 42.9M 25.1M
Total Assets 374.2M 286.1M
Total Liabilities 227.0M 198.2M
Net Asset 147.3M 87.9M
No. of Shares 637.5M 637.5M
Net Asset Value (USD) 0.23 0.14
Net Asset Value (SGD) 0.32 0.19

Thus, my estimated current valuation of FSL ranges from SGD0.19 to SGD0.32. As shown above, the valuation varies significantly with the market value of the ships. Based on the above calculation, the loan is fully covered by the market value of the ships. In addition, in its 1Q2017 results presentation, FSL reported that the remaining charters will generate USD90M in revenue. Thus, I believe that the probability of successful refinancing is high. Hence, I have added a short-term speculative position in FSL at $0.11 after a 5-year hiatus. This is solely a bet on successful refinancing. If and after refinancing is successful, I will likely reduce the position considering the uncertainty in sustainability of future cashflows.

Although refinancing is likely in my opinion, a rights issue to raise some money to partially pay down the debt cannot be discounted. At the current price of $0.097, a rights issue is going to be very dilutive. Hence, when I bought into FSL, I was also prepared to subscribe fully to the rights issue so as not to dilute my shareholdings.

This is still not the end of the valuation estimation. Like all distressed asset plays, there will be other players who want to bargain hunt. On 28 Apr 2017, it was announced that the major shareholder planned to sell all its shares to Navios Maritime Holdings. In addition, Navios would provide a convertible loan of USD20M to FSL, which is convertible to such number of shares that, together with the shares bought from the major shareholder, will result in it owning 50.1% of the enlarged share capital. This translates to an additional 330.5M shares to be issued if the USD20M loan is converted, or SGD0.0847 per share, which is a 13% discount to the current price of SGD0.097. The exact terms of this proposed transaction have not be confirmed. After this transaction, the estimated valuation of FSL would reduce from SGD0.19 - SGD0.32 to SGD0.16 - SGD0.24.

This will be my third time buying into FSL. Will I lose money again on it? Let's wait and see. This is definitely not for the faint hearted and certainly not recommended for anybody.

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Sunday, 30 April 2017

Globalisation, Technology and the Home Bias

I have both active and passive investments in my cash account. The active investments are in local equities while the passive investments are in global/US equities. Part of the reasons is because I understand that passive investments, especially using index funds, can lead to better performance over active investments. In recent years, I have come to realise that there is another important reason for having passive investments that are invested globally. It is the increasing disadvantage of the home bias in the face of globalisation and technology.

Since my active investments are in local equities, I am highly susceptible to the home bias. Home bias means that an investor invests only in companies operating in his home country due to familiarity with local companies and regulations. Literature shows that home bias results in lower performance as the investor gives up the opportunities of investing in better managed companies overseas. With globalisation and technology, the disadvantage posed by home bias is increasing.

Let us use Yellow Pages as an example to illustrate the increasing impact of globalisation and technology on home bias. Before the rise of internet search engines, whenever consumers wish to search for a particular good or service, they had to refer to either word-of-mouth or Yellow Pages. Yellow Pages thus could do well as it had a monopoly on the directory of goods and services in the country. Each country has its own version of Yellow Pages, with some doing better than others due to different environments. While investors who invest only in their country's Yellow Pages might not have reaped the maximum benefits from investing in the best run companies globally, they could still do relatively well. Before globalisation and technology, home bias leads to relative underperformance, but it is still not serious.

Enter the internet search engines. With internet search engines, consumers no longer need to refer to the local Yellow Pages to find goods and services. They can search on the internet instead. Companies also respond by advertising their goods and services on the internet instead of Yellow Pages. There is also a network effect at work. The more companies a particular search engine covers, the more consumers use that search engine. And the more consumers use that search engine, the more companies advertise on that search engine. This gives rise to just a few dominant search engines in every country. The 3 dominant search engines in the world are Google, Bing and Yahoo, which all reside in US. Thus, with the march of technology and globalisation, local Yellow Pages in every country suffer declining revenue from a business that used to be very stable. Investors who invest in their country's own Yellow Pages suffer as well. Home bias, in the face of globalisation and technology, can be serious.

Although I used Yellow Pages as an example, it is by no means the only company facing increasing challenges from globalisation and technology. SPH's newspapers are facing declining readership due to internet news sites, ComfortDelgro's taxi business is under threat from Uber, hotel business trusts like CDLHT, FrasersHT, FarEastHT, etc. are facing competition from Airbnb. The list goes on and on. The examples above show that big, local companies are not spared from the competition. Not only that, the competitors threatening the local companies are all based overseas. Investors who invest only in local companies are likely to see declining dividends and share prices.

In conclusion, before globalisation and technology, home bias is a small price to pay for the familiarity with local companies and regulations. But with the relentless march of globalisation and technology, the price of home bias is more and more singnificant. It looks like I have to allocate more money to my passive investments, which are invested in global/US equity funds.

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Sunday, 23 April 2017

Possibly The Worst Time to Invest – 3 Years On

This is an annual blog series that I started 3 years ago to document the worries about investing at the wrong time, which would bring losses and headaches. The blog series track the performance of 2 passive portfolios invested in index funds using the portfolio rebalancing strategy. Both portfolios comprise of 70% allocation in stocks and 30% in bonds. The plain vanilla portfolio invests in global equities and global bonds while the spicy portfolio invests in US equities and Asian bonds. The first portfolio was started in Dec 2013, while the second one was funded progressively over 2015. 

In the first post in 2014, I mentioned worries about the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) nearing its all-time high (then) and US Federal Reserve planning to raise interest rates from an all-time low. In the second post in 2015, I mentioned that the same worries persisted, with DJIA touching yet new highs and interest rates moving up in anticipation of Fed's interest rate increase. Not only that, new risks emerged with oil price crashing by more than 50%, China's growth slowing down and the threat of Grexit. Yet, despite all these worries, the plain vanilla portfolio went up by 12% since its inception.

In the third post last year, I mentioned that worries about market declines actually materialised, with major declines in Aug 2015 and Jan 2016. The decline in Jan 2016 was especially severe, with stock markets around the world crashing. At mid Feb 2016, the plain vanilla portfolio was down by 0.7% since inception while the spicy portfolio lost 7.0%. Yet, by the time I wrote the annual post in Apr 2016, both portfolios had bounced back strongly. The plain vanilla portfolio was up by 8.5% while the spicy portfolio gained 0.6% since inception.

With each passing year, more and more risks materialised. Jun 2016 saw Britons voting for Brexit while Nov 2016 saw US citizens voting for Donald Trump as president. Both outcomes were unexpected and led to sharp falls in the stock markets around the world. Yet, barely days later (or hours in the case of the US presidential election), stock markets had recovered fully from their initial falls. Not only that, stock markets went on to scale new heights on optimism that President Trump's fiscal policies would spur faster growth in the US and world economies. Currently, the plain vanilla portfolio is up by 21.6% while the spicy portfolio is up by 13.7% over their respective holding periods of about 3.5 years and 1.5 years.

Personally, I still worry a lot about risks, which I wrote about in a couple of posts last year, such as What Have We Got After 8 Years of Easy Money?, Making America Great Again and Its Impact to Asia, Another Year That Ends with 7, etc. This pessimism is reflected in my active investments. Over the past 1 year, I have been taking some money off the table. Some of the risk management related divestments include Venture at $8.38, Valuetronics (partial) at $0.50, Global Logistic Properties (partial) at $1.81 and a couple of speculative shares (see Meet The Minions). Nonetheless, there are new investments, but these are in more defensive stocks such as dividend stocks, beaten-down stocks and even Gold.

In fact, I was quite tempted to tinker with the 2 passive portfolios given the strong views about the market. But I decided not to do anything about them. Had I rebalanced or withdrawn money from the 2 passive portfolios, they would not have achieved the returns mentioned above. They have built-in defence mechanisms to manage market crashes through portfolio rebalancing if the stock/ bond allocation were to deviate from the original allocation by a pre-defined amount. For these 2 portfolios, I will continue to stick to the pre-defined strategy even if the markets were to crash.

In conclusion, it is difficult to predict where the markets are heading. If you have a well-defined defence mechanism in place, just let the portfolios continue their work.

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Sunday, 16 April 2017

Early Retirement Maybe A Luxury That I Cannot Afford

I have blogged about early retirement in the past 2 years, but I really do not intend for this to be an annual series. Moreover, I do not intend to retire early and sit back and do nothing. Nevertheless, there are fresh insights on this topic and it is good to write them down for future reference. 

In the past 1 year, I have read a few books such as "Capital in the 21st Century" and "Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future". I am concerned about automation and robots taking away jobs. By right, this should not be a concern for someone who has considered early retirement. However, there are additional complexity if I think about future generations. I do not have any children currently, but if I have, then any actions on my part now would have an impact on them in the future.

I do not think I will be replaced by automation and robots any time soon. However, the same cannot be said for the next generation. If the doomsday scenario of robots replacing workers on a wide scale were to materialise, it means that we are back to the very old days when how well we live does not depend on how hard we work, but who our parents are and/or whom we marry. In the case of my children (if any), that parent would be me. Thus, when seen from an inter-generational perspective, the window of human employment is closing soon and early retirement at a time when jobs are still available seems a luxury. Hence, instead of saving enough for my own retirement and retiring early, I should work for as long as possible to maximise the income from human capital and build up sufficient financial capital upon which my descendants could lead a decent life. Early retirement maybe a luxury that I could not afford in the face of automation and robots.

Of course, this is not a fool-proof plan. Whatever I save could be squandered away by future descendents. So, I do hope that the doomsday scenario of robots replacing workers will not happen. Or perhaps the prevailing governments of the day would understand the social implications and implement some basic income for citizens as suggested in the books mentioned above. If I have to pay more taxes for this to happen, I would grudgingly pay them. It is a small price to pay for social insurance for my future generations.

Having said the above, if I can have the option of not relying on some external parties to bail us out, that would be the best. Thus, I will have to use my own efforts and earn as much as possible. Sorry, folks, I have to go back to work tomorrow.

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Sunday, 9 April 2017

Breaking My Valuation & Position Limits

It is official! I have broken my valuation limits on buying & selling stocks and position limits on individual stocks! Previously, I mentioned in What is My Target Price? that I have valuation limits of 1.8 to 2.0 times book value for buying stocks and 3.5 to 4.0 times book value for selling them. In Jan this year, I had broken these rules with the purchase of M1 at 4.7 times book value and Singtel at 2.5 times book value!

Also broken were my position limits on individual stocks. I have an initial position limit of $15K to $20K on each stock, depending on what type of stocks they were. These limits could be doubled to $30K to $40K if I need to average down on the stocks. The position limits were first broken in Nov 2015 with the purchase of Global Logistic Properties (GLP). Initially, I thought this would be the exception rather than the rule, considering the long-term growth prospects of GLP. However, after I invested in M1 and Singtel beyond the initial position limits, it is confirmed that the position limits have been broken. 

What caused the change in my valuation and position limits? To understand the reasons for the change, you need to understand why the valuation and position limits were put there in the first place. For a very long time, I have been using quantitative methods to analyse and value stocks, looking at only earnings, dividends, cashflows, debts, book value, etc. This approach has served me well in the past, but there are times when this approach turned up value traps whose share price keeps on declining. Thus, it makes sense to have valuation limits to ensure that I do not overpay for stocks identified using this approach and position limits to ensure that whatever mistakes I make do not become so large that I cannot recover from them. Quantitative limits on valuation and position size go hand in hand with quantitative methods.

It is also important to realise that quantitative methods have some underlying assumptions -- either (1) the stock will close the gap between price and intrinsic value, (2) the stock will recover to its past earnings and price (mean reversion), or (3) the stock will continue to generate good earnings and dividends (extrapolation). Sometimes these assumptions do not hold. Some stocks just do not recover in earnings and price after a decline, such as the few Oil & Gas stocks that have gone into judicial management. Other stocks are unable to sustain the good earnings and dividends, such as Starhub and M1. The problem with quantitative methods is that you cannot tell whether the assumptions will hold or not until the results are announced. By that time, it is probably too late to sell the stocks. Valuation and position limits make a lot of sense when you cannot see what is ahead.

Over the past 2 years, I have been gradually moving away from quantitative analysis into qualitative analysis, looking at issues such as business strategies, competitive environment, corporate governance, etc. This approach has the advantage of providing a glimpse into where the business is heading instead of extrapolating from past performance. Thus, if the business looks good, I could take up positions ahead of the market. Conversely, if the business looks bad, I could sell in advance. Valuation and position limits are less useful if you can see accurately what is ahead.

Furthermore, SGX is a small market. There are very few stocks in some industries such as banks, telcos, shipping, etc. But the amount of work necessary to analyse the industry is independent of the number of listed companies in that industry. For example, I wrote 8 posts on the telco industry but there are only 3 telco stocks, out of which I selected 2 for purchase. If I could only invest $15K on each stock, it really does not do justice to the amount of efforts put in. Position limits become constraints when there are limited number of stocks in a particular industry. Thus, my position limits were officially broken with the purchase of M1 and Singtel in Jan.

Having said the above, I have not fully discarded the valuation and position limits. There are dividend stocks that I purchase using the quantitative methods. For these stocks which I have no insights or time to analyse deeply, valuation and position limits will continue to be in place.

Will breaking the valuation and position limits lead me to make mistakes that I cannot recover from? I certainly hope they would not. I will still need to improve my skills at seeing the future prospects of the companies. 

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