On investing in equities, property and racehorses: CEO of Allianz Global Corporate and Specialty Asia

Mr Mitchell with his wife Evelyn, sons Callum, seven, and Leeum, nine, and horse Whose Else's. Mr Mitchell enjoys the thrill that comes with horse racing, but warns that it is a lot less stable than other investments such as art or property.
Mr Mitchell with his wife Evelyn, sons Callum, seven, and Leeum, nine, and horse Whose Else's. Mr Mitchell enjoys the thrill that comes with horse racing, but warns that it is a lot less stable than other investments such as art or property.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Insurance company's chief exec invests in racehorses but he warns that it is a volatile industry

The horse had a thick coat of winter hair. He was part of a disposal sale in Australia and his bankrupt trainer did not have the money to groom him for the auction. Most people stayed away, but Mr Mark Mitchell was not most people.

Mr Mitchell, 48 and chief executive at insurance company Allianz Global Corporate and Specialty Asia, came from a line of potato farmers and garage owners.

"The family didn't come from wealth by any stretch of the imagination," he recounts.

At 11, he took up part-time jobs pumping petrol and doing paper runs to support the family.

School holidays were spent at his uncle's farm - the man was "quite a successful horse trainer" and Mr Mitchell would take the horses from the stables to the racetrack in the mornings.

  • Worst and best bets

  • Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?

    A I bought shares in a Hong Kong-listed gold producer but the management proved poor and I lost $50,000 over two years, 50 per cent of what I put in.

    In hindsight, I should have cut my losses earlier because although the asset was undervalued in my opinion, the questionable management practices prevailed and the shares continued to underperform.

    The board decided to divest the company of its main income stream, which was a gold mine contributing 99 per cent of its revenue. It wanted to sell that asset and move into financial services, so the gold funds exited their positions and many people lost trust in the management because they weren't from the financial sector, they were gold miners. The shares were hit quite heavily.

    Q What has been your best investing move?

    A My best investments have typically been in property. I bought my Gold Coast holiday home in 2013 for about a million less than what the previous owner paid.

    After the global financial crisis, those who owned holiday homes and had financial difficulties had to sell their properties.

    There were a lot of holiday home owners on the Gold Coast, and I managed to buy at the bottom, when there were forced disposal sales by the banks.

    We get to enjoy it for family holidays at least twice a year and its value has risen 35 per cent since we purchased it.

    The property market in Australia is quite hot now and people are looking outside capital cities like Melbourne and Sydney for investments.

    The Gold Coast is one of those key secondary markets and with the Commonwealth Games coming up in 2018, there's been a lot of money spent on developing infrastructure with stadiums and swimming venues being built, as well as light rail construction. All this is causing a real estate boom and I expect further capital appreciation in the region for at least the next two to three years.

    You also get very good yields on the Gold Coast. I rent out my Gold Coast property on a short-term leasing basis and it generates a 12 per cent gross rental yield.

    I have an agent who has other similar properties on the Gold Coast and everything is put in a holiday letting pool. Families come and stay for a week or weekend, paying rather high rates. If I were to lease long-term, I would probably only get a yield of 6 per cent.

    But short-term leasing has its disadvantages, like increased risk of vacancy and damage because people don't treat a house they are staying in for only a short while as well.

    So the maintenance cost is higher, but so is the gross yield, and overall the net yield is better.

    Sheryl Lee

"I was always around horses. I had another uncle who was a bookmaker who took bets on horse racing, so my whole family grew up around horse racing," he says. "It's personal but it's also an Australian thing. Horse racing is an institution there, it's a national obsession."

Horse racing can be "boom or bust" but the associated adrenaline and the camaraderie he shares with trainers, jockeys and other owners keep Mr Mitchell, who is a permanent resident in Singapore, invested in the sport.

"It's not stable like property. It's a volatile industry. You might be the lucky one that gets the next Black Caviar and wins millions in prize money but you might also be the person who bought the $5 million horse at an auction that got bitten by a spider and died before it had a chance to race.

"You buy a house, you get a roof over your head. You can't sleep under a horse. You don't do it for investment. You do it for the love, the passion and the thrill," he says.

Mr Mitchell's love for the sport has made it harder for him to cut his losses. "I've had less successful horses and persisted with them longer than I should. It's hard not to be emotionally attached because if you have a passion for horse racing and horses, you want to see them do well, give them every chance to improve."

Mr Mitchell ended up buying the shaggy yearling last June for $12,000 with Mr Stephen Gray, who trains his other two horses, Optimus and Whose Else's. They nicknamed him "Hairy".

Q Moneywise, what were your growing up years like?

A I didn't grow up particularly wealthy and worked part-time from young until I went to university.

Q How did you get interested in investing?

A I was encouraged to work from a young age, save and invest my money. When I was 18, my parents encouraged me to buy my first shares and I purchased Commonwealth Bank shares. That was my first taste of investing in equities.

My parents then encouraged me to buy my first house when I was 20. They weren't rich and understood the value of saving, investing and making the most of your money.

Q Describe your investing strategy.

A I invest in equities, property, art and racehorses.

For the first two, I focus primarily on relatively safe assets in markets I have reasonable understanding of.

For me that would be mostly equities and property in Australia and Singapore, and 90 per cent of my equities are in blue chips that generate yield in terms of dividends and long-term capital appreciation.

When investing, I also pick out macro trends to follow, which I have found can provide more stable returns compared to individual stock picking.

For example, markets like Vietnam and Indonesia are attracting more foreign investors now so it could be a good time to enter the equity market.

I wouldn't try to pick the stocks in those markets though, because I don't know them well. I would try to find an exchange-traded fund to ride the wave of development in those markets without taking the risk on any particular stock.

For horse racing investments, it's always risky buying horses that are unproven at auctions. You can manage this by engaging professional trainers and bloodstock agents but sometimes the very best bred horses don't deliver on the racetrack.

Another option is to simply lease horses from their owners. The advantage is that you don't have to pay a significant amount of money at the outset for the horse, and if the horse gets injured, you can just hand it back to the owner. It's an economical way for people to get into horse racing and it's becoming more popular here.

The disadvantage is that you pay for the training costs but the owner keeps a portion of the winnings.

Investing in artwork is not as lucrative as equity but you get to enjoy the art.

If you compare its value to the S&P Index over the last 40 years, the S&P averages 11 per cent growth per year and art averages 7 per cent globally.

Asia could potentially beat that 7 per cent yield though, because there's a growing collector base here.

Some 20 per cent of the world's collectors are in Asia and when people start to collect, there is more demand which helps prices to rise.

Now, I'm looking more at art that has provenance - art that has been auctioned or acquired, been important, or been in prominent collections.

I started around 15 years ago with Australian art but I also collect South-east Asian art. I own more than 50 paintings and sculptures and have at least 7 per cent in returns. Some of my pieces have doubled or tripled in value.

I like Filipino and Indonesian artists because they have big collector bases so the art tends to be highly sought after.

You can also buy old Vietnamese art cheaply because the Vietnamese have not started to be particular about their art and haven't been building museum collections.

It's very hard to get good art cheaply at auctions in Singapore because a lot of galleries here buy art.

When the National Gallery at Padang was building its collection, it was very active at all the big auctions and anything by a famous Singaporean artist was very expensive.

Vietnam hasn't got to that stage but it has a large population and as the middle-income class grows, they will start to buy back their own art. People tend to be quite particular about their own country's art.

Q What's in your portfolio?

A Some 40 per cent of my portfolio is in property. I own three bungalows in Australia - two on the Sunshine Coast and one on the Gold Coast.

I bought my Sunshine Coast properties in 2004. I had family living there and investing in the market so I was aware the market was having a bull run.

I managed to get in not quite at the bottom, but somewhere near the middle, rode that a little bit.

The market has since flattened out so I'm looking to sell these properties and reinvest in the Gold Coast, which is coming out of a trough in the real estate market and has been appreciating significantly over the last couple of years. My Gold Coast property has been one of my best investments.

About 10 per cent of my portfolio is in equities. My biggest equity position is in GuocoLeisure. I invested in it around 18 months ago. It's a Singapore-listed company that owns and operates hotels and has one of the largest number of hotel rooms in London. It also has some diversity in its portfolio, including oil and gas royalties and land in Hawaii, which it is redeveloping for residential purposes.

I have been watching it for some time and think it is significantly undervalued. I look at stock price relative to net asset value and in this case it could be as much as 40 per cent undervalued.

The majority shareholder has also tried to take the company private in the past at significantly higher prices than it's currently trading at.

Now it's trading at around 87 cents but the owner tried to take the company private at $1.25 in 2005. The majority shareholder has been buying shares quite aggressively this year, so gut feel and the stock's past history suggest they might try to take it private again, and if they do they will make an offer above what it is trading at today.

Apart from these investments, another 15 per cent of my portfolio is in art and racehorses.

I have two horses here, Optimus and Whose Else's. Whose Else's was purchased in Queensland, Australia, for $30,000. After insurance, transport and quarantine, he lands here for $50,000.

Optimus is a lease horse owned by a Kiwi. I also have a third horse, Hairy, which I own 50 per cent of along with Stephen. He is in New Zealand being broken in and trained but will be moved here in the second half of this year.

The prize money is quite generous in Singapore and depends on the class your horse is in. The trainer and jockey each take a percentage and the owner gets the balance.

Both Optimus and Whose Else's have won enough prize money to pay for themselves, around $60,000 each after four races, and Hairy won a trial in New Zealand.

Now, the horses are also worth more than what we paid at the auction because they have won races.

It's relatively lucrative racing in Singapore. The Turf Club does a good job of supporting owners and promoting the industry.

It provides subsidies to owners to help support the cost of training the horses. Your horse gets a $900 per month subsidy if it hasn't won or come last in a race during that month. So if it's not hopeless but not a world-beater, they want to encourage you to continue and not be disheartened.

Q What are your immediate investment plans?

A I'm more conservative about equities now because of the volatile market. We're also looking to buy a family home in Singapore in the next year or two so we're holding more cash. Around 30 per cent of my portfolio is in cash.

Q How are you planning for retirement?

A I'm trying to get enough property rental yield such that I can cover my family's living costs by the time I retire, which should be around $15,000 to $20,000 per month.

Q Home is now/I drive...

A I live in an apartment in Novena, near United Square, with my wife, two sons and helper. We are leasing it and intend to buy a house here.

My wife drives a BMW 4 Series but I take public transport or taxi because it's convenient and cost-effective.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 05, 2016, with the headline ' Hold your horses'. Print Edition | Subscribe