Sunday, February 23, 2014

Alan Ramos, IDA and the problem with mid-career IT engineers.

I promised a more detailed treatment about the Alan Ramos incident. For further details and background, you may refer to the following article here :

Basically, many netizens were upset with my previous employer for hiring a Mexican Harvard psychology graduate when it was perceived that many Singaporean mid-career engineers are in a dire need of a job. When confronted on FB, IDA was silent on why it made the decision to hire Alan Ramos.

I did not meet Alan during my stay in IDA. In fact, I met him at Barcamp prior to becoming a public officer. My impression of him was quite good, he seemed dynamic and could think quickly on his feet although I felt he was overselling his Harvard credentials at that time. I did spend some time wondering what happened to this Boy Wonder throughout my stay in IDA. That was until I read the news that he was involved with an underaged prostitute.

My aim for this posting is to not to represent IDA, but to share what I think could have been a better alternative than keeping silent on the decision to hire Alan Ramos. I also would need to do this in a way that is fair to my previous employer, where I still have many friends.

Right now, I doubt that any officer could have provided an answer the way I did because any message would have been heavily censored before it was placed on FB. This is just the way the government bureaucracy works. Career risk is very high for many senior public servants, there is simply too much incentive not to make mistakes rather than to do something which the public perceives as being the "right" thing to do.

Now to the gist of why agencies needs the likes of Alan Ramos :

To address the question of hiring psychology graduates, you need to really understand that IDA is not IBM, HP or even NCS - IDA is a government agency. Dollars and cents are not the most precious currency in a government organization. IMHO, the most precious currency is accountability - a chain of documents and paperwork which can demonstrate integrity of any officer and his superiors if subject to the scrutiny of any auditor.

Unless you work in GCIO which is the IT department that runs the government servers, you are a bureaucrat who will spend a lot of time writing approval papers and making power point presentations. As such, I think that a project manager who has spent 20 years on SDLC would make a horrible government servant, unless he likes doing documentation, I would bet that he would be surprised at the amount of paperwork which needs to be done just to keep the project running.

In such a situation, having a public officer who is trained in the liberal arts like Alan Ramos would make much more sense. His papers would be riddled with fewer grammatical errors and psychology majors have a knack for reading other people, which in my opinion, more important in an agency because a lot of presentations require a large amount of mind-reading so that it can pushed to another layer of approval. Liberal arts majors also do a little bit of science subjects so it may be possible that Alan may have taken a Computer Science module or two before getting hired.

The next item which I would like to address is the problem of mid-career engineers. Like me, you might think that you do have the skills that makes you entitled to an iron rice bowl in a government agency.

The hard and bitter truth about an engineering career is that it needs to be maintained to stay relevant. Most of us in our 40s have worthless degrees with a resume full of project victories which employ outmoded technologies or IT management frameworks.

If you are an operations PM who knows ITIL at the back of your hand, DevOps is the new killer management paradigm which threatens your livelihood by having developers manage their change processes over the cloud without operations staff.

What is the use of having SDLC experience when a lot of organizations are looking at AGILE methodology which is cheaper and results in software that better serves the needs to the companies.

Can a DBA set-up a Hadoop cluster ?

Are you a software engineer stuck in the C# .NET framework when the hottest programming languages are Python and Ruby ?

Can an old school TCP/IP stack engineer re-tool himself for the Internet of Things ?

Can an algorithms expert understand Naive Bayes or the working of the K Nearest Neighbour algorithm ?

In the short term, engineers have the hottest skills to get the best tech jobs. After 10 years, there will be enough technology disruption to render your skills worthless, that's even if you  hold a tech job continuously because your company may not change as fast as the tech industry.

At least Alan Ramos still has his liberal arts background which is timeless and allows him to adapt to changes in any industry.

To many mid-career engineers,  it looks like an iron rice-bowl is a great way to escape the great obsolescence that awaits all engineering careers, but from my personal experience, many of us are really not suited to government careers.

Instead I recommend the following :

a) Can you earn your income from investments ?
b) Do you have the skills and capital to start a small business ?
c) Why not obtain a taxi license ?

Alan Ramos will be fully dealt with by the law, but don't begrudge his skills and training, they may really be more suited to a government agency than you think.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What's wrong with getting financial advice from a billionaire like Li Ka-shing ?

Lately, a translated article from Li Ka-Shing was being circulated  on the Internet. Compared to the usual advice that some of the gurus were to provide, it's actually not bad. Li Ka-Shing comes across as a pretty progressive and modern person who has some down-to-earth advice for everyone.

You may judge for yourself by reading the article here :

I'm not going to be like the rest of the Internet and talk about what a great article this is.

If you are a florist struggling after the World War in HK, following this advice will likely make you a billionaire. Otherwise, advice is advice. It should be judged by how many millionaires you can make with it. And as a previous shareholder who owned HPH Trust, I will not take anything that a seasoned businessman say without applying my own critical thinking skills to his ideas.

Here's my take  :

a) 25% as start-up capital 

Li Ka-Shing advocates putting aside 25% of one's income as start-up capital. Strangely, he does not advocate savings. The aim of this fund is to ultimately do a business. This belongs to the class of advice which worked for Li Ka-Shing but may not work for most average Joes. As a savings component, 25% is too low  ( At least start at a ridiculous 50% so that every month of work earns a month of rest ).  

Most people suck at business which explains why the high failure rate. In our current economic situation, businessmen need to contend with high labor costs and rents as well.

I think I would rather critically examine how LKS and Son actually make their money, which is to invest in toll-like investments and get tenants or broadband subscribers to  pay to use their infrastructure. When these assets reach critical value, spin it off in SGX and sell it to Singapore investors, let them deal with port strikes and slower Chinese growth that come soon after divestment.

Start investing early to get the compounding engine in your 20s. If you come across a business idea which trumps your portfolio of real estate, manufacturing firms or toll businesses, then think about running a business.

You are more likely to succeed as a long-term investor, similarly you are more likely to fail in a small business.

b) 20% to pay for lunch with friends

20% is a crazy amount for net-working. Do make sure if this is done in Singapore, the person you are giving a treat to is not a government servant. I spent some time re-examining this advice and I wonder if there is a hidden meaning embedded in those words that can only be appreciated within the context of a Chinese regime. In a Chinese SAR like HK, you can definitely knock yourself out giving treats to supposedly 'useful' people. But in Singapore, it may be better to stick to a hawker centre or food-court and exchange knowledge and practical advice instead.

I would take this budget out completely and merge this into the savings budget. Instead, I will invite friends out to discuss the economy, business ideas, good investments and the latest books over $1 kopi-o.

c) 10% for travel and the broadening of horizons.

This is not such a bad idea, but can we  travel as part of work ? During my younger days, I used leave to extend my travel so that I can see other parts of the world on company budget. Yes, I've not been to Disneyland, but I built outsourcing teams in KL and Bangalore. Anyway 10% of my savings when I was 25 would not get me beyond South-East Asia.

I would also bunch this budget into the investment budget. And when you are in your 20s, if  you wanna recharge go to KL over the weekend.

d) When you are poor, spend money so that people can see it.

It is this advice that really rubbed me the wrong way. Some old folks may have this idea that you gotta fake it until you make it. In the good old days, people might take your word for it, just be a slick salesman. But these days, we live in a high-surveillance society. People will use social media to find out what you're really made of and verify your claims. It's also much harder to sell to a sophisticated web-savvy customer.

Showing off by using bright and expensive clothes may work in a Toastmasters competition, but when it comes to work, every bit of substance counts.

Don't believe me ? Google Richard Li and you will find that he regrets claiming that he had a Stanford degree but he dropped out.

I would say respect decorum when the need arises and dress to meet standards. You should also be consistent as to the kind of person you are regardless of whether you are rich or poor, otherwise, your friends who helped you in the past will say that you have changed.

In summary, I think LKS has shared good advice to many readers, but it's more fun to examine the context by which this advice holds true.

In a similar vein in Singapore, many multi-millionaire trainers exist to give advice to ordinary people. The advice should be assessed by looking at how useful it is to the ordinary folks and not judged solely by the wealth of the trainer.

Friday, February 14, 2014

What single dudes can learn from the Investment masters on Valentine's day !

There are many parallel's between finding a perfect portfolio and searching for a good spouse.

On Valentine's day, let's look at at some concepts in investing which can be easily translated into the realm of Love and Romance.

a) You need to know what you want.

In fundamental analysis, some investors search for value stocks and some go for growth stocks with a great story. Similarly, you need to have an idea of what kind of girl would suit you in a relationship. Not spending time thinking about this problem will result in having needs which only a few women can fulfill on planet Earth, i.e. you might end up wanting a decent and conservative girl that will whip you silly and rock your world in bed.

A growth stock is like the hot, tanned chick in a bikini who pole dances and can show you her hidden tattoo if you are nice to her. A value stock is like a beautiful girl who loves playing with children and who is courteous to your parents and gentle with you. Some people go for growth, others, go for value.

b) You need go to the right place to find that special someone 

Once you know the kind the stock you are looking for, you need to set up a screen to filter through the universe of stocks in SGX. Value investors go for low P/B, P/S, P/E with high free cash flow and dividend yield. Growth investors go for the consistent growth in revenues and EPS for the past 5 years and a story to sustain that momentum.

Similarly, conscientious girls are best found in schools and the accounting department in the workplace. If you want someone fun and outgoing, you can always go for dance classes. Don't go to a venue to find a particular type of girl that generally does not exist there. I could be proven wrong, but I doubt you can easily find a conservative and gentle mother for your children if your hunting ground is in China Black.( Note : I know there's no more China Black but you get the picture. )

c) Getting a wingman or a male friend to comment on someone who is your potential target.

Sometimes it's hard to understand why a stock is being sold as a bargain. Maybe there is forex risk. The company may be losing out to an innovative upstart. Or the stock belongs to a sunset industry. Reading the comments of a good financial blogger would give you an idea owning the stock is a good idea.

Similarly, perfectly good-looking women may be single in her late thirties. A wise guy will find out why this is so by probing her friends or doing some research. Maybe the hot-chick is tremendously neurotic or she is expensive to upkeep. The dating market can be as competitive as the finance market. Many good ones are already taken during University.

You need to find someone with a flaw that you can tolerate to be happy in this world.

d) Determine your appropriate level of commitment.

If you are just scoping the stock the first time, keep your exposure to a minimum at 1% of your portfolio. After a few quarters and some dividends later, you will have a keen idea of whether this stock is one to keep in your portfolio. You can increase your exposure to 5-10% if that is the case.

Similarly in dating, you should not be rash. When you first get to know someone, dating casually will do. A person who thinks like an investor will certainly not go for one night stands ( that's for the folks who play options ).  Make sure that you really know someone and her family before you commit to a marriage or cohabitation.

So there you have it. By training yourself to be good at picking stocks, you will find that many techniques can be brought to other areas in your life.

Hope that you have a Happy Valentine's day and have found someone that you can truly buy-and-hold for the rest of your life.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

What Streetfighter II has taught me about finance.

For the past week, I've been trying to game the Bloomberg machines at the Central Library. Patrons are limited to 1 hour of use per day. This really reminds me of the time I had to queue for a Streetfighter II machine at the NCO club which was next to Raffles City about 20 years ago.

Time flies, but some things ever change. My Blanka would not last every long against the kids and Bengs who were very good at the game. Similarly, the Blooomberg machine has shed some harsh truths about the various investment strategies used by fundamental analysts.

My objective for getting the Bloomberg machine is to first myself in its use and then to see if I can derive some interesting insight on Singapore markets.

As I'm still pretty new at Bloomberg, I was able to use the stock filters and do some back-testing on local stocks. Try not to use some of the results I present here as investment advice but possibly as something which can lead to better insights on fundamental analysis in the future.

All numbers take the top 10% percentile of stocks in the Singapore universe. Portfolio is equally weighted among different stocks and rebalanced annually and backtested over 10 years.

Lowest P/B ratio gave mean return of 42.79% with standard deviation of 20.46%
Lowest P/S ratio gave mean return of 38.51% with standard deviation of 22%
Lowest P/FCF ratio gave mean return of 30.57% with standard deviation of 19.75%
Lowest P/E ratio gave mean return of 29.05 with standard deviation of 19.43%
Highest dividend yield gave mean return of 23.37% with standard deviation of 15.02%
Highest dividend growth over 5 years gave mean return of 16.67% with standard deviation of 16.66%.
Highest ROIC gave mean return of 19.59% with standard deviation of 18.84%

Here's the best part, if you design an equally weighted portfolio of Singapore stocks you will get a mean return of 32% with a standard deviation of 20.06%

The only decent conclusion so far is that an equally weighted portfolio would result in a fairly decent performance against other strategies which includes my favorite high yield strategy ( which has merit only because of it's low volatility ).

Over the next few weeks, I will be refining my filters to cover multiple criteria and expanding my backtest to cover 20% percentile of stocks since employing only 10% of the universe results in a higher volatility.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Why Malaysian Chinese already rule Singapore ?

In case you might be thinking that I'm pulling yet another Adam Khoo...

Happy Chinese New Year !!!!

Singaporeans with a Malaysian background already dominate many spheres in Singapore. Our nation has grown from the brain gain that we have received from their ethnic Chinese population.

Khaw Boon Wan ,our National Development minister, came from Penang and should recently be congratulated for reducing COV to about $5,000.

Olivia Lum, founder of Hyflux, started out the in sleepy Malaysian town of  Kampar and is responsible for the creation of many local jobs in Singapore today.

According to The Triple Package by Amy Chua of the Tiger Mother fame, Malaysian Chinese form an ethnic group which I think has the same traits as many successful American immigrants today.

Let's examine each component of this Triple Package :

a) Sense of Superiority

We can say that Malaysian Chinese do have a sense of superiority. While it is'nt targetted towards Singaporeans, I would say that they feel very much persecuted at home and denied many privileges back in Malaysia. Many could have done well in the Universities in the north but are very much better off studying here where their merits can be recognised in our country. The sense of superiority would be directed back to their homeland where they feel that they are still doing well economically despite being constantly forced to function with a handicap.

b) Insecurity

Although Malaysians do integrate well in Singapore compared to other foreign talent. It would be naive to think that they do not suffer from some scorn within Singaporean society today. Some Singaporean Chinese complain that they speak Mandarin with a strong accent, and many are disadvantaged in the workplace due to poorer English. Any group which faces scorn or a drop in status will develop a chip on the shoulder so I would think that naturally many Malaysian Chinese do want to prove themselves here. Not just to the meaner Singaporeans they face at work but also to their fellow citizens back home.

c) Impulse Control

Immigrant populations come built-in with a lot of impulse control. Imagine the life the Malaysian student in Senai, who has to wake up at 4.30am to attend a Junior College in Singapore. He probably spends 3-4 hours travelling. He does that because he thinks that a Singaporean education is a ticket to a better future. That kind of willpower and conscientiousness simply cannot be imagined if you are a local. As it often happens on the ground, Singaporeans still do better in school and do well in academic scores, but I bet Malaysian Chinese may do better over the long run because a difficult lifestyle also means more opportunities to develop resilience and grit.

So, what this all mean for us Singaporeans ?

I won't want spread any fear about Malaysian Chinese, half my family is Malaysian, my daughter practically grows up in Johor as well. I also consider the brain gain from Malaysian a primary reason why we are an economic miracle today in South East Asia.

Here's what I think :

a) The advantages of being Malaysian Chinese will not last one generation.

The main reason is that we are not too bad and remain largely kiasu. We already work the longest hours in the world.

Unlike the US, Singaporeans of all races would rank pretty highly with the Triple Package. Singaporean parents always think that their kids are the best and very much more neurotic than our ASEAN neighbours. The kids of Malaysian Chinese are likely to grow up Singaporean and will adopt our values and weaknesses. They will not have the fighting spirit of their parents. Many will end up requiring Adam Khoo's services like Singaporean kids these days.

b) Policy considerations should be made to keep Singaporeans and the country "Insecure" and conscientious.

The Triple Package may have policy implications.

Singaporeans have been recently asking for too many populist measures from the Government. We already have a fairly good healthcare and social security system.

But some changes do bother me like taking out the t-score for PSLE. Why do we want to make our future generations  less competitive ? I think the West gets it wrong, we need to master something before we should be given any self-esteem. The worse thing for Singapore is that our children think that they are really smart but get rolled over by harder working students in China who are better at handling stress.

Stress is necessary for the building of character. Introduce a t-score for University entrance.

I would'nt want to get into the welfare or minimum wage debate but it's quite clear where I stand on this debate.

c) Fight the Philistine culture

The rise of a materialistic philistine culture is also something we need to guard against. My observation of the Singapore middle class is that as hardworking as it is, it has never developed a culture of intellectualism. Even intelligent Singaporeans do not focus on ideas, they focus on material goods and things. There are over 400 Maseratis in Singapore but not a single Nobel prize.

Impulse control is cultivated by a culture which promotes Intellectualism as you need patience and dedication to develop a philosophy and outlook on life. The Patek Phillipe watch just needs a bank loan.

And we've chosen the quick fix as a way to measure status in our society.