Archive for November, 2006

Speculative fervour in the Chinese stock market

Wednesday, November 29th, 2006

In our previous article, Are you being ripped off by fund managers?, we mentioned, ?… China in the process of tightening liquidity to rein in the runaway economic growth, the gush of speculative money will dry up… We believe there are more falls to come as the Chinese government is in the process of curbing the excesses of the unsustainable asset price inflation.?

We would like to rectify that opinion.

In today?s Australian Financial Review, we read an article commenting that further liquidity is expected to drive up the Shanghai Stock Exchange. We checked out the Chinese Yahoo Finance and were dismayed to see the amount of speculative fervour and volatility in the Chinese stock market. Even business and national leaders were advocating ?investment? of shares. There were stories after stories of stock market ?success? and how ?investors? achieved wealth through share ?investment.?

Yes, we believe that eventually, the Chinese would have to tighten liquidity before inflation goes out of hand (there were some indications of their plan of doing so, but nothing concrete had been implemented). When that happens, we expect the stock market bubble to burst, if not deflate. In the meantime, with all these excess liquidity in the financial system, those punting and gambling activities will probably lead the stock prices higher with great volatility. The question is, when the party will end? We do not know the answer.

Anyway, the Chinese stock market is too strange and chaotic for us to understand.

Are you being ripped off by fund managers?

Wednesday, November 29th, 2006

Today, we received a Product Disclosure Statement (PDS) for a new issue of a listed managed fund, which will invest in Chinese companies that had been recently released from Chinese government ownership. The sales pitch in the PDS persuasively glowed on the powerful economic potential of China, which forms the compelling basis to get into the bandwagon of money pouring into China. The PDS also highlighted that before this new issue, that fund had produced a return of 60%!

As usual, we are not keen on such investments.

For the uninitiated, investing in a fund whose past return was 60% seems to be a good deal. For us, we doubt such kind of performance can be repeated again. Indeed, if you look carefully, most PDS have disclaimers in fine print that goes something like that: ?Past performance is not indicative of future performance.? One mistake people often make is this: projecting past performances indiscriminately into the future without examining the reasons and conditions that gave rise to such performances in the first place. In the case of this fund, with China in the process of tightening liquidity to rein in the runaway economic growth, the gush of speculative money will dry up. Since early this year, the Chinese stock market had gone down from a high point. We believe there are more falls to come as the Chinese government is in the process of curbing the excesses of the unsustainable asset price inflation.

We are also unsure of the skill and experience of the fund manager. We are in no position to evaluate that in the absence of long-term track record. Furthermore, we ourselves have neither understanding nor experience in the Chinese stock market. We heard from the grapevine that it is a place akin to the Wild West?a melting pot of greed, fear, speculation, corruption and even fraud. We admit we have no proof of that but we would prefer not to put our money into a place that we do not fully understand.

Lastly, we believe that investing in such a managed fund will put us in a highly disadvantageous position with regards to risk and return. Firstly, as with most managed fund, retail investors have to pay a performance fee regardless of the performance of the managed fund. We do not have any problems with that as long as we are confident in the quality, skills and experiences of the fund manager. But in this case, we are not that sure. Secondly, if the managed fund outperform, we will have to fork out additional fees in out-performance fees. But what if the fund underperforms? Does it pay retail investors any under-performance penalty in such an eventuality? Unfortunately, as with most managed funds, there is no such thing. Retail investors will have to pay regardless of the fund?s performance. They will pay more if the fund outperforms. But if the fund under-performs, retail investors bear all the consequences. As for the fund managers, they get all the rewards and none of the risks. Who cares if the fund manager turns out to be a dud or is plain unlucky? They still get paid.

Thus, our advice to you is this: get educated about investments and money yourself because you can trust yourself to act in your own best interest.

How will asset-driven ?growth? eventually harm the economy?

Monday, November 27th, 2006

In Chapter 15, Section 2 of Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, Ludwig Von Mises wrote:

The economists were and are still today confronted with the superstitious belief that the scarcity of factors of production could be brushed away, either entirely or at least to some extent, by increasing the amount of money in circulation and by credit expansion.

Indeed, as we mentioned in our previous article, The Bubble Economy, this is exactly what the Federal Reserve is currently doing to the US economy. In 2001, when the US economy was faced with a threat of recession, the Federal Reserve embarked on an expansionary monetary policy (aka ?printing money?) in an attempt to prevent it from happening. We believe this policy does not prevent a recession?it merely postpones it, in which the upcoming one will be more severe instead.

When central banks expand the money supply artificially, it creates distortions in the economy which will eventually result in a recession, which is a correction to the distortion. In the case of the US (and the British and Australian as well) economy, the housing bubble was caused by the inflation of money supply. For the common people in the street, such inflation manifests itself in the form of ultra low interest rates, which in turn encouraged an increase in ?demand? for housing. As we explained in How is inflation sabotaging our ability to measure the value of things?, an expandable supply of money derail our ability to accurately assess the value of things. Thus, when housing prices increased due to the increase in ?demand? for housing, the common people are misled into thinking that the value of housing had increased as much as the increase in its prices. That collective error in judgement resulted in the economy misallocating scarce resources into housing sector?in the case of the US, a significant proportion of the jobs created during the asset-driven ?growth? was related (both directly and indirectly) to the housing boom. Since economic resources are always scarce, any misallocation of it implies an opportunity cost on the other sectors of the economy. The result is a structural damage to the economy that can only be corrected through a recession.

This is the reason why we believe a recession is on its way.

Insiders buying Telstra

Saturday, November 25th, 2006

In Peter Lynch?s book, One Up on Wall Street, he said:

There?s no better tip-off to the probable success of a stock than that people in the company are putting their own money into it … When insiders are buying like crazy, you can be certain that, at a minimum, the company will not go bankrupt in the next six months. When insiders are buying, I?d bet there aren?t three companies in history that have gone bankrupt near term.

Generally, insiders? buying is a good sign, though it is not absolutely infallible. When you look at the legal disclosure on directors? share acquisitions, you can see that there are many types of purchase, from share purchase plan, dividend reinvestment plan, exercise of company options, on-market purchase and so on. Not all types of purchase are significant. The important distinction you have to make is that whether the director is using his or her own money to buy the share. If they use their own money, the next thing to look at is whether they are buying significant amounts of it?so much so that they will feel the pain if their company does not do well. Even better, if a significant number of the directors are doing the same, it is an even stronger tip-off. Finally, do not get carried away with one or two isolated incidents of such activity?stay calm and note the trend before jumping into conclusions too quickly.

Today, we saw this article in the press?Sol Trujillo (and Belinda Hutchison as well) put his own money to buy T3. Upon checking the other directors? transaction, we found a couple of interesting information. On 22nd August this year, one of the non-executive directors, Peter Wilcox, bought 20000 Telstra shares at $3.45 on the market when it was near its low point. Another interesting fact to note is that his current holdings of Telstra shares comprise 88% of his annual remuneration. Another non-executive director, John Zeglis, bought 16500 shares on the 3rd November at $3.99. His current holdings comprise 51% of his annual remuneration.

These signs are encouraging. At the very least, they are not negative. But as with all information, it is not wise to base your investment decision solely on insiders? buying information. In Telstra?s case, they are certainly interesting. We will be watching the trend of insiders? buying for this company.

Are pirate (oops, we mean ?private?) equity getting reckless?

Thursday, November 23rd, 2006

Yesterday, news of Qantas (the Aussie national icon) being stalked by private equity electrified the Aussie market. At one point, fuelled by rumours that a takeover deal could be worth up to $5.50, Qantas shares shot up to a high of $5.25.

We are simply amazed at the audacity of private equity nowadays. It seems that no public companies are safe from these marauding hordes. Do they want to take over Qantas just to prove that they can?

As we said before in Qantas rose on takeover rumour, there are substantial legal and political challenge for the takeover deal to succeed. To even contemplate such an endeavour, the share price of Qantas (before the release of the news) would have to be at such compellingly discounted level that the private equity can still offer a higher price that is economical. We doubt it is so for Qantas. We cannot understand what value these private equity see in Qantas at such an exorbitant price. Why would they even want to bother to borrow so much money (note: debt increase the risks further) to go through so much trouble and risks for so little? We scratch our heads in wonder. Perhaps these deals are structured to benefit the CEO, directors and fee-chargers (read: Macquarie Bank) much more than shareholders and investors? If the deal succeeds, we can imagine Qantas being slashed, burned and plundered mercilessly in order for this daring adventure to be worthwhile for the pirates.

It looks to us that this year?s rise of the private equity phenomena could be an indication that the world is still sloshing with too much liquidity (money and credit). Private equity siphon up a lot of debt and its easy availability may lead to situations where lenders underestimated the risks. As this article said,

WESTPAC’S David Morgan last week urged caution about the torrent of private equity deals, saying the inflated asset values, highly geared takeovers and rising interests rates paralleled the boom and bust conditions of the 1980s. What is unclear about the debt-fuelled private equity bubble, however, is who will be left wearing the losses when it ends.

Indeed, financial regulators around the world are getting concerned. As this article mentioned,

THE collapse of a large buyout firm was “inevitable” and could threaten the stability of the British economy, Britain’s main financial watchdog has warned as it becomes the latest international regulator to focus on the private equity industry.

As investors, we take heed of this phenomenon as a warning.

How is inflation sabotaging our ability to measure the value of things?

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

In our previous article, Is oil going to be more expensive?, we mentioned that monetary inflation (?printing? of money) is one of the reasons why we believe that the price of oil will probably rise in the long run. In fact, we can extend this rise in price to commodities in general. Even further still, if the central bank prints money consistently enough, everything will rise in price, from your weekly groceries to the stock market. A fine example of such madness will be Zimbabwe?in May this year, its inflation tops 1000 percent (yes, it is one thousand, no typo error)!

Let?s come back to the example of oil. Let?s say oil price is trending up for the next few years. What will be the first conclusion that comes to our mind? Naturally, we will believe that the rise in price of oil reflects its increase in value in the market. This will then lead us to conclude that the demand for oil is outstripping its supply. Since oil is priced in US dollars, we are in effect using it to measure the value of oil. Now, hold that thought while we divert to an analogy…

If you want to measure the length of a box, you may use the ruler to do it. The reason why a ruler can do such a job is because its length is reasonably consistent for the foreseeable future. Now, imagine that ruler is as elastic as a rubber band. Do you think it is still a useful tool to measure the length of the box? An elastic ruler is useless because you can always make up the measurement of the box to whatever you please just by stretching the ruler such that the edge of the box is aligned to any intended measurement markings in the ruler.

Now, let come back to measuring the value of oil. Since oil is priced in US dollars and if the supply of US dollars can be expanded and contracted at will by the Federal Reserve, how useful do you think it is as a calibration for measuring the value of oil? The answer will depend on how responsible the Federal Reserve is in maintaining the quality of the US dollar. We will discuss this topic for another day.

With this, we would like to end this article with a quote from Chapter 12, Section 5 (The Root of the Stabilization Idea) of Ludwig Von Mises?s book, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics:

The endeavors to expand the quantity of money in circulation either in order to increase the government?s capacity to spend or in order to bring about a temporary lowering of the rate of interest disintegrate all currency matters and derange economic calculation. The first aim of monetary policy must be to prevent governments from embarking upon inflation and from creating conditions which encourage credit expansion on the part of banks.

What should be your real reason for buying gold?

Monday, November 20th, 2006

Speculators are always in the market. Where speculators congregate, there will be herd behaviour, mob rule and rumours. Late last year, gold pierced the psychological US$500 market, which heralded in a ‘gold rush,’ culminating in a short-term price bubble of around US$730 in May this year (see our article, The story of gold). After the bubble burst, the gold price, till today, remained trapped in volatile range.

The aim of these gold speculators was to make as much money as possible in the shortest possible time. When they saw the price of gold moving up with great momentum, they joined in the party, resulting in a dangerous price bubble. Since they did not care about understanding the underlying value of gold that they were punting their money on (for hedge funds, it is usually other people’s money), the only reason for them buying is because the price was going up. As investors, we prefer to invest, not bet. When we look at gold, we perceive it differently from the gold speculators.

At this point in time, the gold price is still in a long-term uptrend. There is a good reason for it?its underlying trend is a big hint to us that something amiss is going on in the global currency system. Thus, as we said before, the root reason for investing in gold lies in your confidence (or rather, the lack of) in the fiat currency system which the world is using right now. And we would like to repeat this point again: the ?money? that we commonly use everyday is the fiat paper currency, which has no intrinsic value because it is not backed by anything physical (e.g. gold). Such ?money? can be conjured up at will by the central bank?s printing press. Thus, its value merely lies in everyone?s confidence in it (see our previous article, Gold & Oil, hand-in-hand).

Thus, your real reason for investing in gold is not to ?make money??you do so as a hedge to preserve your wealth.

How much should we listen to the financial media?

Thursday, November 16th, 2006

Let’s take a look at this media report in The Australian (released in the afternoon):

THE stock market was down at noon as concerns about a slowing US economy kept local resource stocks at bay despite a recovery in commodity prices overnight.

Now, look at this media report in MarketWatch (released in the morning after the overnight market close in the US):

U.S. stocks rose Wednesday with the Dow Jones Industrial Average stretching to a fresh record close after surprising strength in a regional survey eased economic worries, with further help from Altria Group Inc. and Boeing Co. and news of a possible merger in the airline sector.

So, the question is, is the US economy going to be all right or is it heading for recession? The US market and the Aussie market seem to think differently. But which market?s thinking is right?

We believe that to be a successful investor, one has to filter out noise in the financial media. You have to understand that the market is the herd and the herd possess herd mentality. If you ask a member of the herd the reason why it is behaving the way it is, you will probably not get an answer based on clear logical reasoning?basically it is behaving that way because other members of the herd are doing the same. The financial media, in order to sell their stories, have to come up with specific ?reasons? for every of the herd?s behaviour even though at times, there may not be one.

The next question: who leads the herd to behave that way?

In the market, there is one group of participants who are called the traders. They have an influence in the day-to-day movement and volatility in the market. Many of these traders use technical analysis as a tool in their trading decision. The basic premise of technical analysis is that market price movements exhibit repeatable patterns, which are used to gauge the probability of future price movements. What do you think will happen if enough market participants use technical analysis? Well, the result is herd behaviour in which technical analysis becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy! So, when you hear words like “technical selling” in the financial media, you know what it means.

Thus, always read the financial media with a pinch of salt.

Can ethanol replace oil?

Wednesday, November 15th, 2006

Recently, due to worries over the prospect of sustained high prices of oil, there had been renewed interest in alternative energies (see our article: Is oil going to be more expensive?) One of the considerations for an alternative to petrol for powering motor vehicles is ethanol.

Indeed, Brazil is a working example on the successful use of ethanol as an alternative fuel. For years, cars in Brazil had been running on ethanol, which are derived from their vast sugarcane crop. In view of this, will there be a day when ethanol supplants petrol as choice of fuel for cars in a mass scale, thus reducing a big source of demand for oil? Before we can answer this question, let us examine what it takes for this to happen.

Ethanol is produced from the conversion of carbon based agricultural feedstock (e.g. sugar cane, corn, sugar beet). Currently, the world does not have a sufficient surplus of agricultural feedstock to produce enough ethanol to supplant petrol. Diverting vast amount of agricultural produce from food consumption to ethanol production is unacceptable?the result will be mass starvation.

In that case, how feasible is it to significantly increase the supply of agricultural feedstock for use in ethanol production? We believe it is not likely to be so. There are too many issues involved. We would not be able to examine every issue, but we will look at two of the most important ones. A commercially viable mass production of agricultural feedstock will require vast amount of land and water. Clearing vast tracts of fertile land (assuming that such land are available in the first place) to grow the same type of plants for extended period of time for this purpose will bring about its own environmental and agricultural issues. The next significant challenge will be the procurement of vast amount of potable and agriculturally-suitable water, which is a major issue in many parts of the world. In Australia, the naturally dry continent made worse by the drought is a case in point.

With these factors in mind, although ethanol will have its limited role to play in the world?s energy problems, we are not confident of it supplanting petrol in a mass-scale in the foreseeable future.

Additional Notes on “Is oil going to be more expensive?”

Sunday, November 12th, 2006

In our previous article, we mentioned about the theory of Peak Oil. For the sake of objectivity, we have to alert our readers that there exist arguments against and for the theory of Peak Oil. Some people regard Peak Oil as a myth while others believe we are now entering the stage of Peak Oil production. Yet some others believe that development of new oil extraction technologies or rise of alternative energies will render Peak Oil irrelevant. Regardless of whether Peak Oil is true or not, our basic belief is that ceteris paribus (everything else being equal), the trend points to a growing gap between demand and supply of oil.