Market-beating monkeys give hope to retail investors

Andrew Sheng says in the art of investing, we can't ignore the basics or stint on time and effort

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:44am

It's now official. Even monkeys can beat the stock market index. Cass Business School researchers in London simulated 10 million portfolios of US stocks selected at random. They found that US$100 invested at the beginning of 1968 would have yielded US$5,000 by the end of 2011, but half the monkey (computer-simulated) portfolios managed US$8,700, a quarter made more than US$9,100 and 10 per cent made more than US$9,500.

So, does the market beat all the professionals if monkeys beat the market?

There is a real lesson here for investors. I had a great debate with a good friend last month regarding the benefits of investing in a world where fast trading algorithms (using super-fast computers to detect market opportunities to buy, sell or short stocks) make it hard even for traditional asset managers to compete. So what chance is there for retail investors? My friend decided to get out of trading stocks.

Investing has become such a complicated business because there are just too many variables. Gone are the days when you think you can understand how markets perform. The rules of the game changed when policymakers began intervening through unconventional monetary policy and politics become part of the equation.

You would have thought logically that growth economies should produce growth stocks. The BRICS economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) met in Durban last month. These five countries have been key drivers of global growth, but their stock markets have not done that well. Since its peak in 2007, the BRICS index is down 37 per cent.

China's A-share index is down 31 per cent since its peak in 2009, and the Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa stock market indices have all been in negative territory since the beginning of this year. On the other hand, growth in both the US and Japan is sluggish, and their stock markets have gained 11.1 per cent and 20 per cent respectively since the beginning of this year.

Despite the region's troubles, even the European stock market has been in positive territory, mainly due to better performances in Germany and France.

The real problem is that negative real interest rates around the world are destroying the ability of investors to judge what is the right asset to invest in. Markets are clearly bubbly when emerging-market investors start investing in taxi licences. Accordingly to a Bloomberg report, Turkish taxi licences today trade for US$580,000 each. A Hong Kong taxi driver was complaining to me that a licence here was trading at over HK$7 million and yielding next to nothing. It made no sense to him as a driver himself to be an owner. This reminded me that in 1996, golf club membership was being touted as the best investment ever, with the 1997 Asian financial crisis wiping out all gains thereafter.

So what should an honest retail investor do? I guess the old-fashioned advice to invest in diversified and value stocks, and maintaining ample liquidity, is still sound. Global bonds have done well since the financial crisis due to the massive quantitative easing. But it is difficult to argue that 10-year US Treasuries and German Bunds, at under 2 per cent per annum, represent no risk.

Over the long term, there is no question that investing in one's own home has been a good investment. This is officially supported leveraged investment, since most mortgages still require not more than 30 per cent down payment for the first home.

The fact that there is a growing middle class in most of emerging Asia means that demand for housing is still rising, but given such low interest rates, it is hard to imagine how much further prices can rise relative to the affordability index.

My own inclination is to go for high-yield, solid-growth companies that are globally diversified. You basically invest in the region you are most familiar with, and in companies that demonstrate good governance and know what they are doing. The average price/earnings ratios of the Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand markets are still below those of the US.

Of course, the art of investing depends on the investor's risk appetite, age and liquidity requirements. If you are fully invested in illiquid assets or in illiquid markets, you cannot get out even though the returns look good. Property markets are notoriously easy to get into and difficult to cash out, especially in the smaller markets. Bond investments may look good on paper, but when you want to exit, the selling price may be lower than what you think you can get, especially for retail investors.

Knowing that even monkeys can beat the market gives one food for thought. You can do better, but you must invest the time and energy to think through what you are investing in, what risk you are taking and what you want to achieve.

Even monkeys know how to survive, so don't look down on them.

Andrew Sheng is president of the Fung Global Institute