Small Change

Review your stocks as you would your clothes

My portfolio could have done with similar pruning as spring cleaning of my wardrobe

Early in the new year the Singapore Exchange, without fail, sends a thick wad of paper to every investor - his or her own annual report card in effect.

In addition to the usual monthly tally of stocks and their market value, there are additional pages listing the dividends received during the year.

I use this tally of dividends, not for any complicated financial analysis but as a rough back-of-the-envelope way of seeing how my investment portfolio has performed. The result last year for the shares in my portfolio was 3.3 per cent (total dividends received divided by the total market value of all my stocks as at Dec 31.) Some stocks may not pay any dividends but they should still be included in the total.

This may not seem like much compared to the Straits Times Index's (STI) rise of 18-plus per cent for the year. But my stocks include those of the local banks whose prices soared last year, so I would expect my actual one-year return to be a good bit higher if I went back and did the detailed maths. So I'm not too fussed. But it is still only January and one of my new year resolutions is to see how I can do better this year, investment-wise.

Given that the market is achieving fresh highs daily - the STI ended the week on a fresh high of 3,550.36, its highest since Oct 2007 - stocks are likely to be overpriced. Rather than get into the market, it is probably time to talk about taking some profit off the table.

That is easier said than done in my case. Indeed, I have been far too faithful a follower of the standard investing principle, which is to buy a value stock with good fundamentals, ride with it through the market cycles and then reap the rewards not just in terms of dividends but capital gains as well.

That has worked for the likes of holdings in, say, OCBC Bank. Looking at the Bloomberg chart of prices, OCBC's share price has risen 42 per cent over the past year. Over five years, it is up about a similar amount. And over the past decade, it has gone up about 73 per cent although most of the gains are recent.

As I went through my investments, I realised that there were some parallels with the spring cleaning of my wardrobe I had done earlier in December. I had ruthlessly discarded clothes that I had not worn for many months and had little chance of fitting into again.

For busy working people, that may seem like a fail-safe method. However, my "invest and forget about it" philosophy could be too risky in current market cycles, where businesses get disrupted and competition can wipe out returns overnight.

And while my portfolio has done reasonably well, it could have performed better with better management. Singapore-listed commodities trader Noble Group is a case in point.

When I first invested in it, that was on the basis of its competitive advantage where it was Asia's largest commodity player. Founder and chairman Richard Elman had transformed the company into one of the most dynamic companies listed on the Singapore Exchange. It seemed it could do no wrong.

But over the past few years, the share price started declining. Over the course of 2015, its shares lost more than 60 per cent, making it the worst performer among the STI stocks. One sharp shock came in February 2016 when Noble stunned the market by reporting a net loss of US$1.67 billion (S$2.2 billion) for 2015, a sharp reversal of its net profit of US$132 million for the previous year. It was rocked by reports of questionable accounting practices over its commodity contracts.

Although the share price was weak, I didn't think to get out at that point. Companies face problems but they can recover.

Since then, it has been a string of bad news - with its share price closing at 20.5 cents on Friday.

In hindsight, there were probably too many issues that beset the trader, especially a commodity business that operated with thin margins and very little room for error.

It had taken on too much debt and with the market's loss of confidence, debt could be refinanced only at punishing rates. Meanwhile, the commodity market took a tumble, making it difficult to generate enough earnings to pare down its borrowings. It is a monumental task for Noble to extricate itself from its problems.

In retrospect, it wasn't Noble going through the normal ups and downs of a market cycle, but fundamental issues that have been challenging to resolve.

While I might not have been able to avoid losses, these could have been minimised, especially if I had reviewed my investment portfolio more closely and paid some attention to the warning signs.

As I went through my investments, I realised that there were some parallels with the spring cleaning of my wardrobe I had done earlier in December.

I had ruthlessly discarded clothes that I had not worn for many months and had little chance of fitting into again.

Despite having made some impetuous mistakes, instead of holding onto the clothes in the hope that a revival in fashion trends could make them popular again, I turfed them out.

What remained was a mix of black and sober outfits, suitable for the office and of a sufficient quality to last for the next couple of years. There is also room for several new additions if I should chance on a good buy.

Perhaps my investment portfolio could have done with some similar judicious pruning. It would have required less effort than actual spring cleaning and saved me a hefty packet as well.

Certainly one principle to follow would be to learn to cut one's losses earlier. While investors must have an optimistic bent, I hope to be more discerning and decisive this year. A lemon is unlikely to turn into a diamond, no matter how long you wait.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 21, 2018, with the headline 'Review your stocks as you would your clothes'. Print Edition | Subscribe