Tag Archives: investing

Why does the Malaysian government love a property bubble so much?

Even by the dismal standards of the Malaysian government, the recently announced plans to “help” first-time house buyers left my mouth agape in amazement. They propose to do this by allowing them to take loans of up to 100% of the purchase price for properties costing up to RM350,000, essentially doing away with any need to make a down-payment. Predictably enough, this prompted commentators to observe that this would make it even easier to speculate in real estate, causing prices to shoot up even more and taking them further out of reach of first-time buyers. But the government is firmly of the opinion that there is no bubble, meaning that price increases of fifty percent or more over the past two years in key areas of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor were perfectly normal.

You know how else the government plans to help people who can’t afford a house? It thinks that people should extend their house loans over longer periods and are encouraging the take-up of two-generation loans. This means loans that are so expensive that you have no hope of repaying them within one lifetime, so your kids must continue servicing the loan long after you are dead. Of course, this also means that your kids are in debt from the moment they are born. In the meantime, saner governments in Singapore and China are responding to the rapid increase in property prices in their respective countries by doing the exact opposite: severely restricting the amount of loans that can be taken out and insisting that buyers stump up ever higher down-payments for each additional property they buy.

I’m not alone in thinking that contrary to what the government is saying, there is a bubble. Take this columnist in The Star for example. As he notes, if prices rise so high that they are out of whack with rental rates and incomes, they will inevitably come crashing down again. Even the consensus on the Property Talk section of LYN, a place that is extremely bullish about making money from real estate deals, has come around to the idea that a popped bubble is a matter of when and not if, though the forum is still full of people who think that they can run and in out for a quick buck before the house of cards come crashing down.

And of course, all this when the world is still grappling with the fallout of the US-based subprime crisis. While the financiers certainly played their part in securitizing all the loans to hide the credit risks inside, the reason why these loans were possible in the first place was because the US government wanted to make it easier for people who had difficulty in proving that they had regular income to get loans to buy houses.

Note that I don’t claim to be an expert in these things and unlike the US, it’s hard to get good statistics on the situation in Malaysia. It’s certainly possible that the bubble is confined to a few key areas so that there’s little to fear on a wider scale and it’s equally possible that as a nation with a population that is still growing, Malaysia has a property market that is going to be able to absorb such price increases for a great deal longer. But it’s also worth noting that property prices in markets like Tokyo and Hong Kong still have not recovered the peaks they reached during their respective bubbles, more than ten years later.

Overall, I can’t imagine how anyone, beyond those directly poised to benefit from the higher prices and the enlargement of the already dominant construction industry, would think that these moves by the Malaysian government are wise. Perhaps this is just a bit of pump priming to jumpstart the economy so that the BN will have a better chance during the 2012 elections or perhaps this is a crass money grab by cronies. Either way, if this is the direction that the Malaysian wants to take for the property market, we’re in for some volatile times.

REITs revisited

Since it’s been almost exactly a year since I made this post, I thought that an update would be in order. I did end up investing money in REITs and have been very impressed with the results. Perhaps too much so. My average returns are close to 20%, which is too frothy for my tastes. Of course, most of this is due to the economic recovery. Like everything else, REIT prices were somewhat down in 2008 and this is just a return to par value. Going forward, I don’t expect to see returns of more than around 7-8 percent a year.

Most of the investing public still don’t seem to have clued in on REITs yet, but clearly they’re getting hot. Sunway’s recent launch seems to be one of the most attention-grabbing IPOs so far this year and more are in the offing, such as the one from CapitaMalls Asia Ltd., apparently with a substantial stake in Sungei Wang Plaza. This makes now a good time for me to raise some of my concerns about them.

  1. Quite a few of the REITs currently listed in Malaysia are linked to larger companies. For example, Starhill, UOA and AmFirst have obvious links to the far larger groups they’re named after. The new Sunway REIT will be another example. This is bad for the minority investors in them. AmFirst’s properties for example are mainly rented out to AmBank, its parent company. This is a clear conflict of interest as it calls into question how fairly the rental rates for the properties are assessed. I believe that the market has taken these factors into account and this is why Axis is one of the most valued REITs in the country, because it has no clear parent company and its shares are widely dispersed amongst different owners, including KWSP.
  2. Many of the property acquisitions and disposals that the REITs have conducted are with their related party companies. It’s especially bad when the REITs have to raise new capital to acquire new properties from related companies but only offer the new shares, which are always at a discount to the current market price, to private parties instead of the open market. This of course dilutes the shares of the other shareholders. Independent valuers are supposed to ensure that the purchases are being done at fair market value, but who trusts this kind of stuff in Malaysia?
  3. Strangely enough, the new REITs being announced have predicted yields that are substantially lower than just about all of the REITs already on the market. Both Sunway and the expected REIT from CapitaMalls are supposed to have yields of only around 6.8%. Take a look at the current yields for the various REITs in the country. Axis is considered to be slightly overvalued now but its yield is still better than the proposed IPOs. I predict that the share prices for these IPOs will tank. Actually, REITs in Malaysia do have a history of trading below initial prices after being launched. Since the total valuations for the REITs are still quite low, this makes me curious about why their prices are being traded up and their yields consequently depressed. The only explanation I can offer is that as trading volumes for REITs are very low, you’d have to increase your bid prices very quickly if you were looking to accumulate a substantial stake in any one of them within a reasonable time frame.
  4. The only advantage that I think of that the new REITs have are their more diversified portfolios of property. Al-Aqar for example has only one tenant, the KPJ hospitals. Similarly Atrium has very few properties and consequently tenants. So even though REIT prices so far have been very stable, in theory, it doesn’t take much to cause them to wobble if one of their tenants have problems with rental payments. The newer REITs have lower yields but should in theory be less risky.

Anyway, sorry for the somewhat rambling nature of this post but perhaps there will be readers out there who might be interested in my thoughts on them. Be sure to check out the REITs discussion thread on LYN. It’s a fantastic resource on the subject.

I have 42 million Ringgit


Or so Public Mutual tells me anyway. I received my Quarter Account Statement for the period ending 30th June 2009 on Saturday as you can see from the picture above (edited slightly to remove some personal information). Most of the report looks okay (actually more than okay due to the gains the markets have made in the last quarter). Then my eye wanders down to the Asset Allocation area of the statement and my eyes pop out.


Yep, it claims that I have a whopping RM42,385,804.10 in fixed income funds with Public Mutual. Naturally, as much as my wife would prefer otherwise, it’s a mistake as I’m worth nowhere near as much. After asking around on LYN, it seems this is a common error in this quarter’s statement. Everyone seems to have an incorrect entry in the Fixed Income portion but the actual amount varies from person to person. It does make me a bit uneasy that my mutual fund company would be making mistakes like this.

Incidentally, my blog hosting company Bluehost.com had some connection problems for the past two days, which explains why this post is late. Very annoying.

Index funds again

I’m feeling lazy today, so here’s a cut and paste response that I posted to a question in LYN:

Can someone recommend some unit trust fund managers for KLCI INDEX fund? Is the OSK KLCI Tracker the only KLCI index fund around? I cannot believe this. Why other fund managers don’t setup an index fund? Why let OSK monopoly? I can’t even find two to compare and see which is cheaper.

Late reply, but this is something that I’ve wondered about in the past on this very forum as well. If you read a lot of general investment advice that comes out of experience in the US markets, the general consensus you should get is that most ordinary people should just buy index funds and forget about everything else. The rationale is that research has definitively demonstrated that over the long run, index funds in the aggregate outperform actively managed funds once you account for the higher costs associated with the managed funds. While it is possible for managed funds to beat the index, research has shown that it is not generally possible to predict in advance which particular managed fund will beat its benchmark index in any particular year. Research has also shown that the simple strategy of choosing the best performer of last year to invest in every year is a losing one.

Continue reading Index funds again

Thinking of investing in REITs

So I’ve been thinking recently about opening a stock trading account for the first time and buying some shares on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange. Granted, I already have money in various unit trust funds and insurance saving products, so I’m already indirectly invested in the markets, but I’ve never actually purchased shares for my own account before. What prompted the current interest is what looks to me like ridiculously attractive dividend yields on many of the REITs being traded here and the intense discussion this has generated on the Low Yat forums.

According to a popular blog on the subject that I’ve been folllowing on and off for the past couple of months, the average yield on the REITs based on current prices is a delicious 8.84%. One of the REITs most popular with the LYN folks, Axis, is listed as having a yield of 10.4%. Even better, Axis has a policy of redistributing 95% of its income and has recently moved to a quarterly distribution policy, meaning you get a nice fat cheque every 3 months.

In theory, investing in a REIT should be approximately similar to investing in property yourself, except that in return for a management fee, you are spared from the hassle of actually scouting for good properties, arranging to buy them and finding and managing tenants for them. Since the REITs are all at least partially funded using loans as well, this means that their yields are inflated by leverage, just as an individual investor’s yield would be in buying a property personally using a mortgage.

Being the pessimist and financial conservative that I am, however, I’m still somewhat wary of something that looks too good to be true. For one thing, the yields looks so good and the size of the REITs so small (Axis is worth by my calculations a mere RM 380 million or so, Atrium, another popular REIT is worth only around RM 120 million in total) that I don’t understand why institutional investors don’t just snap the whole thing up. I see that the Employee’s Provident Fund is already the largest shareholder of Axis, at 7.59% of total issued units, but what’s stopping the big players from just taking over such a sweet operation?

As always, I suppose there’s the risk of property prices dropping, tenants leaving or not paying rent (I understand Atrium gave everyone a scare when it announced a lawsuit against a big tenant over rent arrears earlier) and the value of the REITs dropping due to the general market sentiment, but it still looks like a stupidly good buy to me. Am I wrong? I’d appreciate it if anyone has any interesting comments on this before I pull the trigger on this.

Index funds in Malaysia

Since I got into, well, not exactly an argument, but at least a rather heated discussion over this topic on the LYN forums, I thought it might be interesting to write down a summary of my posts there and also what I’ve learned from that thread. Please note that all of this mostly applies only to Malaysia.

Now I’m just a neophyte investor and I don’t make any claims to exceptional knowledge or skill. But I do take care to read through the basics and try to educate myself in whatever it is I’m getting into. One of the most basic and well known ways to invest your money is through the stock market. You can either do it yourself, picking stocks that you personally believe will do well and pray, or you can entrust it to “professional” mutual fund managers and pray. I’m guessing that most working people don’t have the time or inclination to actually do their own research and will opt for the latter. That’s what I did and this is where things get interesting.

Continue reading Index funds in Malaysia