Friday, May 26, 2017

On scarcity, $10,000-a-month internships and capping graduates to 30% of the Singapore population.

Given that I turned down five-figure a month job to carry on with my $500 a month internship, I thought I should share my perspective on $10,000 a month internships article that recently appeared in the Business Times. Statistically speaking, $10,000 internships are special with the average salaries for permanent workers being around the region of $4,000 a month.

It's easy to fall into the trap of becoming envious of folks who get such lucrative internship stints but I expect only a few such positions to be so financially rewarding. Even if there are $10,000 a month internship, they are usually reserved for the smartest, most well-balanced, and possibly the most well-connected graduates from top universities around the world.

The root of this phenomenon is scarcity.

This is the same thing which drives the controversy over Singapore's policy to cap graduates at 30% the cohort population. A lot of unhappy Singaporeans, are angry that the government wants to limits degrees for only 30% of the population.

Here are some ugly truths which I'd like to share on this blog.

a) Captain Obvious : Degrees are more valuable when they are limited to a few.

Degrees are not for everyone because the value of a degree is tied to signalling rather than skills development. To put it in a nasty way, a graduate is not hired based on his ability to do complex tasks in the workplace. He is valued for his general intelligence relative to his cohorts. This is why a Medieval History major from Oxford can command a bigger pay-check than a Masters in Engineering from local university.

This is the reason why JC and universities are such perverse places which seem more obsessed with evaluating someone rather than training them. For example, in both law schools, students would rather study the notes left behind by our seniors rather than the slides presented by our professors.

( I actually think that my daughter's jotter book is better organised than the notes from some professors I encountered in University. )

The best jobs in a capitalistic economy do not require any skills but prefer to select a person based on his ability to pick up new concepts and present it to others in a coherent way. MNCs want smart people who can be moulded to fit their company culture through a rigorous management associate training program. Skills can be easily taught once you have the right recruits.

Otherwise our top companies would just recruit from our polytechnics instead and save a lot more money for their shareholders.

b) Limiting degrees protect the interests of capable non-degree holders.

Less obvious is how this benefits the non-degree holders.

The first benefit is that for non-degree holders is that they are not pushed to over-invest their time for just another piece of paper with low signalling value anyway. Why pay $70k-$80k and 3 years of your life to study a local private degree just to get by with a $2700 starting pay ? A degree will not magically catapult you to a comfortable middle class lifestyle. A diploma holder may start with a lower pay but they also start earning money at a younger age which also gives them more time to compound their investment portfolios.

The second reason is that it improves the signalling value of non-degree holders. If only 30% have degrees and you do not have a degree, it can mean that you could be in the (top) 31st percentile which is still not too bad in the grander scheme of things. Good SMEs may treat their best workers like gods and may still groom you for the C-suite because no sane company would discriminate against 70% of the population.

However, if 90% of the population have degrees, no one would happily employ a non-degree holder without a nasty chat their HR manager. The big firms would simply recruit candidates with a strong honours classification. The population would then start to demand for for more distinctions to be granted to graduates.

So we don't really need more degrees than the jobs that MNCs and a large part of the public sector provides. A better question would be how to promote a comfortable middle-class lifestyle for folks with a diploma ( Maybe we can talk about this in a later article or a talk ).

c) There is a solution out of this obsession with signalling for degrees - Engineering school !

After reading this, a lot of folks who get shafted by the education system will then bitch and whine about its obsession with signalling and why higher academic institutions simply don't focus on developing skills instead and have companies hire for folks who can do their jobs.

There is a class of degrees which has more skill than signalling value. In surveys done in the US, the branding of engineering degrees matter the least in labour statistics.  Because folks who want to be engineers are so rare, most engineers will face little discrimination from branding of their degrees if they can graduate with an engineering degree and are willing to do technical work.

But how many Engineering degrees are actually being offered in private local campuses ? You can google that yourself but I expect the supply to match the demand.

d) Lifelong learning will trump IQ, EQ and our obsession with degrees.

If you accept my argument about signalling of degrees, you might become even angrier at the government for pushing for more skills development. Is this drive for life-long learning a scam?

Life-long learning is not a scam. It's a only way forward for survival.

Degrees have signalling value but the depreciation of a paper qualification is getting faster with more technological disruption. For degree holders, the value of their paper will be much lower in a few years time and have to spend the rest of their time picking up new skills and following industrial trends.

Because quite a number of degree holders will be unable to maintain the value of their professional credentials, the employment market will be a hot place for a non-degree holder to compete by a committing to a lifelong learning regime. The dropout rate for a Coursera course is 90+%, finish one data science specialisation and you are signalling your value to a potential employer.

Last words : It's about the middle-class lifestyle, what it takes to get there and few will succeed in the end.

You know what the Hard Truth is ? The middle-class lifestyle will remain elusive regardless of your efforts to get a degree.

The final problem for a lot of folks I met ( many who do come from local private schools ) is this paradox which, I think, will doom them to a mediocre lifestyle forever.

On one hand, they demand that some kind of free access should be given to them to get a degree which I think is understandable.  But on the other hand, they see it just as a piece of paper with no intrinsic value. A degree is just a paper to set them free. They are being held back for the lack of one paper. Otherwise, they would already be as rich as Warren Buffett.

What about knowledge ? What about cultivating an open mind ? What about seeing connections between different disciplines ?

Without that innate curiosity and an open mind, I observe that many fellow Singaporeans will just regress to the most heavily marketed lifestyle choice on social media which is based on credit and conspicuous consumption.

But a life of the material is a lot harder to sustain than the life of the mind.

For these people, a degree is just a route to a nicer handbag and better car.

They don't get it,

They won't make it.










Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Equity Management #13 : How to think about leverage.

We are at Chapter 27 of the book even though this is the 13th installation of the series. For the reader's sanity (and mine), I have skipped over the mathematical components of the book to try to generalise some of the ideas on this blog.

Leverage is something I intend to try out over the next few weeks.

During my last talk, Maybank was kind enough to sponsor a room for BigScribe which would have the effect of improving our razor-thin seminar margins. In return, I signed up with Maybank for a brokerage account which allows me to leverage some of my REIT and business trust investments for a very low rate of 2.88%, in effect guaranteeing them at least one customer for that free room rental.

( I've been meaning to dabble with leverage since the 2009 recession but never had the guts to start until I learnt about the 2.88% interest rate. And this is not a sponsored post BTW. )

Once my account is opened, I will create a very small leveraged portfolio to experience what it is like to trade with leverage. It starts at a small size of $10,000, but I will buy about $20,000 worth of REITs and business trusts. This arrangement is expected to yield about 13%.

As I start my new career, I intend to farm my entire pay-check into this leveraged portfolio moving forward and see how long it will take for me to (a) Accumulate a pay-off high enough to off-set my mortgage payments, thus, giving my CPF-OA a well-deserved rest. (b) Actually pay off my remaining mortgage.

As I have a main portfolio of stocks feeding my family, this is still using money that I can afford to lose.

Back to equity management, the text-book has a few philosophical things to say about leverage.

There is an equation which measures an investor's utility function which incorporates leverage and volatility which I will not show on this blog.

In English, it basically means this :

An investor is always hunting for active returns but this greed is balanced by his fear of portfolio volatility and leverage. Because every investor has a different tolerance towards volatility and leverage, the optimal leverage and volatility of his or her portfolio is something unique to every investor. Traditional models employ only the investor's tolerance of volatility. Newer models incorporate someone's tolerance of volatility so an optimised portfolio may have a degree of leverage in them.

With this small portfolio of income investments, I hope to discover my own tolerance towards leverage. Of course, if my portfolio collapses within weeks or faces a margin call by the end of 2017, it might turn me off leverage for good !








Sunday, May 21, 2017

Some insights from Psychology - More loose ends from the previous talk.

There is one loose-end from the last talk.

Apparently, my presentation slides were not the latest version which I sent to the company admin. This turned out to be a good thing because, this way, my talk ended on time and it might turn out out to be more draggy otherwise.

Just thought I'd share information about the missing slides and in the meantime showcase to the more intermediate readers the depth of research we go to prepare our slides. This is not something you can read about even if you combed all the Wiley Finance books or read all the self-help improvement books on Amazon.

The material is from KB Chan's "Work Stress among six professional groups : the Singapore Experience" written in 2000 in the journal Social Science & Medicine.
  • The most stressful profession is Teacher followed by Lawyer followed by Engineer. Maybe after a couple of years you will find me getting a diploma in NIE. ( Just kidding !)
  • Generally speaking,  folks hate a workplace where the boss does not support your work and you have horribly political colleagues. 
  • The year 2000 was 17 years ago and, therefore, ancient by social science research standards. In those days, the general trend faced by working professionals is the de-professionalisation of knowledge. We respect professionals less now because we can google answers prior to consulting them. I've constantly switched doctors for my diabetics treatment until I have an awesome Associate Professor who advises me knowing that I show up prepared for my appointments. ( I think he will have concerns over the Montgomery test for negligent medical advice in our next meeting, haha ! )
  • Doctors and insurance agents remains the happiest professions in Singapore. Yeah, yeah, you guys know how I feel about the latter. 
  • Both professions are happy due to the high locus of control experienced. So if you can't switch professions, find a corporate culture which gives you the highest level of personal autonomy if you want to reduce stress. This may rule out the public sector and some uniformed services.
Ok, that's it !

We're back to regular programming next week and look out for out next talk in July.






Saturday, May 20, 2017

JD Aftermath #6 : LLBs



Interactions with LLBs are the fundamental difference between SMU and NUS's approach towards legal education for mid-career professionals. SMU prefers that mid-career professionals interact with themselves first with limited exposure to LLBs to come later. NUS would thrown their JD-equivalent to swim with the sharks from day one.

JDs will generally begin to have encounters with LLBs when they start picking up elective modules in SMU. Its generally  a great experience.

On the surface, LLBs are the ideal children of Singapore Tiger Moms. Perfect in every way. Straight As for their A levels. Future lawyers and bright shining lights of the legal industry.

The Elite of the Elite.

That's until you get to them better.

The cynical will say that SMU has a dual-track system for LLBs. You know which 'caste' an LLB belongs to after just talking to them for a short while.

a) Tee Kong Kias 

Hokkien for Heaven's Child, the Tee Kong Kia are the true beneficiaries from SMU's brutal legal education system. These guys are excellent in class and also have plenty of options to represent SMU in Moot competitions. They are mature, articulate and intelligent.

Half of the time I think their lives will be wasted in the Law because I imagine how many jobs they can create if they go the way of the Razer's CEO who was also a law undergrad.

Nevertheless I expect their impact on the legal system to be large in the future.

b) Tai Ko Kias

Hokkien for a Leper Child, I was so glad to have buddy LLBs who are  Tai Ko Kias.  ( I use this term in an affectionate manner which shows my appreciation of them. )

They are still brilliant because its still Law School, but they are chill and prefer to use their high general intelligence for things other than beating the shit out of other Universities unfortunate enough to face SMU in competition. ( Recently, we beat the crap out of Oxford. )

It is the Tai Ko Kias who remind of my days in Raffles Hall 20 over years ago and my Toastmasters days when somehow most of my friends were Law Students. The lecture tutorial system in NUS gives more room for slackers who typically pick up tempo only a couple of weeks before the exams.

LLBs are simply better than JDs because, unfortunately, the JD program accepts graduates with no working experience allowing others to cast the JD programme as a 'second chance' for those who do not qualify for the LLB the first time round. This is why in previous posts, I propose provisionally alloting a seat for JDs but insisting that they use their first degree for two years in the work force before admission.

Advice for JDs is to avoid classes with many Tee Kong Kias when you choose an elective.The shift in the grading curve is brutal and two of my modules International Moots and Civil Procedure took a nasty hit because my classmates were too brilliant and can survive on 4 hours of sleep a day.

[ Tip : Tee Kong Kias take the more substantive and litigation driven modules because they are damn zhai and want to kick everyone's ass. You should avoid International Moots, Civil Procedure and super-hard modules like Insolvency.

Tai Ko Kias take the modules which my friends claim are more relaxed and gentle like anything related to Mediation and Arbitration. Subjects with low legal content like Project Finance also attract Tai Ko Kias. ]

Do enjoy working with your Tai Ko Kia buddies because they are possibly the only students who don't mind giving JDs a chance to work with them as they are friendlier and less grade optimised. Take into account that they have just completed JC or NS so may not be as conscientious as full working adults.

Due to the generation gap, you can really benefit from trying to understand how they interact and use their apps. It's not what we 40s do, even if we are tech savvy.

That being said, I really benefitted from studying alongside young people : Yesterday in my office, I schooled the 20-something associate on the latest album by Harry Styles.















Friday, May 19, 2017

Personal thoughts after last night's talk on Stress-free investing

Ok, I've finally recovered from last night's talk. Let's talk about what happened last night from my perspective.

Last night, Lionel gave passionate speech about automating one's investments using ETFs and Alvin Chow spoke about implementing the permanent portfolio.

As for me, I was barely sticking to the original intent of the company directors when they set out the topic for the event. I really wanted every single talk I give to feature unique material that cannot be found in financial blogs and popular books on personal finance so I tried to craft a talk which attempts to link a person's financial capabilities to psychological well-being, fortunately there was a study made in the UK which allowed me to conclude that raising one's financial capabilities will also improve a person's psychological health.

The second component of my talk was about insurance. I reminded the audience that risk is almost synonymous with stress and can be active managed by either tolerating, avoiding or transferring it to someone else. Then I shared my minimalist framework on how I manage my personal insurance.

The third component is about dividends investing.

What was really amusing during the talk for me was Alvin asking the audience whether they thought my approach to investing was stressful and about 80% of the audience raised their hands.

I don't really have a defence if someone thinks that my approach to money management is complicated. If you are a regular reader of my blog, my approach to Life is complicated. The important thing, however, is that the audience acknowledges that dividends investing is the reason why I can be financially independent today. I have been feeding my family without a day job for almost 4 years while paying a full home mortgage and my net worth has even gone up since the day I entered law school.

The only thing I might add is that life sometimes demands that a certain amount of attention need to be paid to managing money. This is a cerebral exercise and can be very stressful.  If you do this earlier, it can give you a much more comfortable life in your 40s. If you choose an alternative which is less stressful during your 20s, you might have to pay more attention to money when you get older. The problem is that for Gen X, by the time they really start to think about managing their money, their main income stream becomes threatened by economic disruption. It gets even worse when you are sandwiched between two generations and have to support your parents and kids at the same time.

One final point.

I think we did not address a good question last night.

The question is whether are there are simple ratios that can be used for bond valuation that resemble the P/E and P/B ratios. The short answer is no.

This is a complex technical question which we could not answer last night.

To get an idea of how this is done at the professional level. You may click on this link here.

Bonds are valued relative to each other by looking at different spread values relative to a fixed benchmark.

I would be surprised if any financial blogger were to employ one of these approaches to determine whether a particular bond is over or under-valued.







Sunday, May 14, 2017

Personal Update - Turned down monthly 5-figure job to pursue my legal ambitions.



If you google the word "decision" and you will know that the roots came from an old Latin word which literally means "to cut off". This is the central theme of my personal update today.

a) Just crossed the Rubicon - a legal career it is !

Two days after my final exams, a headhunter contacted me to look at some fairly attractive IT roles in a large MNC. I was willing to look into it because I have yet to begin work on my internship. I thought it may be interesting because I have been out of touch for 3 years and do not expect an attractive offer. I tried to prepare for the interview and just for fun, tried to enrich my previous IT audit experience with some of the stuff I learnt in school about MAS regulatory practices. From a compliance perspective, I walked the interviewee through areas of a MAS compliance which would benefit from legal analysis.

I did not expect the interview to turn out so well. The job which was originally being put on offer was set aside for a larger regional role with a full team to manage.

At the same time, things started out rather well in the law firm I interned in. I troubleshot financial spreadsheets to assess a divorcee's assets, resolved IT problems and researched on fairly cutting edge areas of a law and was actually listened to when strategising litigation with my boss ( All within 2 weeks ! ). It was hugely positive experience and the opposite from the horror stories from many of my peers.  

So I have a dilemma in my hands. I can take on a 5-figure job and would be able to hold out for 3-4 years to resolve my condo mortgage decades ahead of time. Or I might be able to build a legal career and be able to solve complex multi-disciplinary problems every day but at a fraction of my IT salary.

So I crossed the Rubicon and submitted my application for Part B. Having consulted a few friends, I realised that no matter how things turned out, there will be regret either way but my family's wisdom makes sense. An MNC can let me go anytime, but a legal practising certificate belongs to me and follows me wherever I go.

I credit my financial independence for allowing me to make this decision. Every single financial blogger I consulted would have taken the job rather than stay on with legal work.

b) Inflicted with buyer's remorse.

Talking about decisions, I was hit with buyer's remorse lately.

The Onyx Boox Magna Carta reader is a large 13.3" e-reader that is loaded with an Android 4.4 operating system. When a ready set was available on Carousell, I plonked two months of internship salary to buy the device up and was almost immediately disappointed by its performance.

Moral of the story - You can't really graft an Android OS onto an e-reader becare e-ink screens have a lower refresh rate. The system feels very slow and key android apps like Adobe reader and Dropbox are not compatible with the system.

Still I am in the process of getting it to work better. I managed to put Kindle on the system and can now read my Feedly RSS news on it.

c) Prepping for the talk this Thursday 

I'm really hyped up for the talk this Thursday.

We have novel material that just can't be found even if you pay $5k plus to other financial gurus. I bet you cant even find a book on the information I will share on Thursday because they came from social science research papers.

Hint : Once and for all, I will tie up all the scientific evidence which shows that improving your financial capabilities will reduce the psychological strain in your life.

Of course, I also will be talking about getting more dividends.






Saturday, May 13, 2017

JD Aftermath #5 : On Foreign Students

And I am not done ! 

Today I will do an article on foreign students and tomorrow I will talk about LLBs.

My JD experience would not have been such a positive experience without foreign students. Older candidates tend to be minority and tends to get sidelined due to the generation gap. This makes them excellent partners with foreign students who can also be marginalised but for different reasons.

a) Group work grading makes it hard for a foreign JD student to fit in.

The problems faced by foreign students are institutionalised into the SMU education system. Singapore students who get into law school are straight-A students (in both Universities) who have high expectations on themselves and others. 

Coming from a different culture and university, foreign students are unlikely to be used to the dedication and fervour that locals are used to so over the years have developed a reputation for being slackers. Foreigners from particular countries might also be prejudiced for not having English as their first language.

It does not help if some seniors advise juniors in any program to stick to locals because the locals still have a better reputation for getting shit done. The Russian hacking scandal in SMU which affected my exam scripts does not help because locals might just lump all foreign students into the same 'slacker' category.

b) Foreign JD students do buck up after a semester or two. 

The problem is that locals are too quick to condemn and a bad reputation sticks for foreign students. It's actually quite hard for a foreign student to qualify for the JD and every batch has only around 4-5 of them. 

They do catch up after a while and do so in fairly remarkable ways because they are quite smart and streetwise to begin with. 

Most group collaborations I have with foreign students are successful because we are able to come up with novel solutions to unconventional problems. The dividends paid by having group diversity will pay off if someone is patient enough to tap them.

c) Fortunately, the foreign JD students will get the last laugh in the legal industry

Life is unfair and will continue to be so regardless of the wishes of the rigid, neurotic Generation Y local. 

The economic downturn for lawyers does not affect foreign students. They are prized for their language skills, rarity and possibly the ability to attract more business for their companies. Many are able to join the more prestigious law firms with moderate grades. 

Before I end, I'd like to give out some not-so-nice comments on Foreign Exchange students which can be a nightmare for our LLBs to deal with. Not all of these students come from reputable universities and many are here to party in Bali and Phuket. I have never heard of a happy or successful collaboration from my LLB friends and University administration really needs to look into the academic disadvantages of being paired with a foreign exchange student in campus. Perhaps those who who only need to pass a module should be segregated for marking purposes so that local students would not be so terrified of them.

NUS was the same 20 years ago. A bunch of foreign students were unable to take their final exams because they lost their passports in Thailand, got a failing grade and were sent home in disgrace.