Small Change

Beating the investment pros at their game

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Time in the market, rather than timing the market, is what really matters in stock returns

One of the most curious things I find in the financial markets - where thousands of professionals are locked in daily competition - is how little you really have to do in order to get a decent return in stocks.

Just because fund managers have access to vast amounts of resources and second-by-second information about the markets and companies they invest in, this doesn't necessarily mean that they can make more money than the average mum-and-dad investor.

In fact, one of their biggest failings is their perverse tendency to want to buy and sell shares all the time to show their bosses - and to a certain extent, their clients - that they are working hard and they deserve to keep their jobs.

But in my experience, the ups and downs of a market cycle can sometimes take decades to complete. However, most fund managers are unable to think beyond a year, or even a quarter, on what they plan to do with the portfolios they manage. This, in turn, can cause them to miss the sustained compounding that leads to outsized returns in an investment.

Worse, in the case of private equity funds, the fund managers are often not paid a fee until they buy something - and this gives them an incentive to purchase, even at prices that may be too high for their clients' interests.

That immediately puts them at a disadvantage compared with a small-time investor who has time on his side to sit it out in cash if he can't find any stock to invest in, or once he has invested, to ride out the turbulence that occasionally sweeps through markets.

Still, this may not be a failing confined to fund managers.

Don't we often find that the first reaction after we buy a share is to check its price the next day - and wonder if we had made the right decision if it hasn't gone up.

Worse, if the price plummets due to some bad news in the market that has nothing to do at all with the company's performance, the likelihood is that we will also panic and dump the shares like everyone else.

It is a typical crowd emotion that works to the advantage of shrewd investors such as financial guru Warren Buffett, who makes no bones about the fact that his favourite investment timeframe for the stocks he holds is forever.

That is why one of the most heart-warming stories I have ever come across in the stock market is that of a remarkable woman, Ms Anne Scheiber, who showed that she could trounce professional fund managers simply by using the skills she had picked up in her job as an auditor in the United States Internal Revenue Service.

When Ms Scheiber retired at 50 in 1944, she had only US$5,000 in savings and had never earned more than US$4,000 a year in her life. Yet she was able to turn her paltry sum into a mind-boggling US$22 million fortune by the time she died at the ripe old age of 101 in 1995.

Her investment philosophy was simple enough for the rest of us to follow. What she did was to look for companies that she believed would continue to make money and pay her dividends as their business prospered.

That meant buying shares in companies where she had developed an understanding as to how the earnings and cash flow were generated and where she was sure that relative to the price she paid, she would still get a satisfactory outcome eventually, even if the market should run into a rough patch.

And using her capital - modest though it might have been at the start - she began acquiring positions in firms such as Johnson & Johnson and Coca-Cola, reinvesting the proceeds in them year after year as she watched her passive income expand.

What is more, her investment timeframe turned out to be the rest of her life, which spanned 51 years. This period encompassed several economic booms and busts, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the first Gulf War and every kind of sociological change imaginable.

That she had been able to grow her returns by leaps and bounds, despite all the upheavals encountered, gives us a shining example of what we can do with our own stock portfolio if we display the same perseverance.

Still, that would have been cheap talk if I fail to walk the talk myself to find out if her strategy really works.

Just as well, I used money that I had squirrelled away in my supplementary retirement scheme (SRS) account to invest in the stock market - and with the same kind of long-term investment objective Ms Scheiber had in mind.

I had opened the SRS account with United Overseas Bank in 2001 after the Government launched the scheme to complement the Central Provident Fund by encouraging us to save more for our old age.

One benefit, of course, is the tax incentive. Like the CPF, every dollar put into the SRS reduces a saver's chargeable income by a dollar, subject to a cap that stands at $15,200 a year. That helps to reduce my tax bill.

But unlike the CPF, contributions to the SRS are voluntary. For me, another advantage is that the SRS funds can be used entirely to make stock purchases, which is what I did.

And because I could only take the money out from the SRS when I reach the minimum retirement age of 62 if I do not want to incur any premature withdrawal penalty, I had a long timeframe of 20 years in mind when I started out on my SRS stock investments.

To simplify matters, I decided at the onset to hold as few counters as possible since I had neither the time nor the inclination to constantly monitor how they were doing.

It ended with me holding mostly just five stocks - the three local banks and another two blue-chips which together mimic the Straits Times Index to some extent. I rarely sell the shares that I buy in this account and I would try to add on to the holdings whenever I put fresh funds into it.

My most recent statement shows the total value of my portfolio in the SRS account is up 70 per cent over the accumulated sum invested in 16 years. That works out to a compounded return of 6.7 per cent a year.

This was no doubt helped in part by the huge rally experienced by bank stocks this year. However, the past 16 years have also been punctuated by a number of stomach-churning events such as the 2003 Sars crisis and the 2008 global financial crisis.

I have not been able to get the same sort of astronomical returns enjoyed by Ms Scheiber since my investment frame so far -16 years - is considerably shorter than hers. But the returns have been much higher than what I would have received keeping the money in a bank savings account.

It also proves a point: By holding the same stocks for long periods and doing as little as possible to them so long as their businesses continue to prosper, I manage to avoid many of the pitfalls that beset those who are unable to simply sit still.

Time in the market, rather than timing the market, is what really matters when it comes to maximising your stock returns.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 20, 2017, with the headline 'Beating the investment pros at their game'. Print Edition | Subscribe