At a Glance

Friday, 27 November 2009

Learning from Dubai’s debt problems

Yesterday, the huge Dubai World conglomerate shocked the world by announcing it needs a 6-month “standstill” on its debt repayments to June 2010. For most of us, what does this mean? CashBench filters through the hype and focuses on what we can learn from Dubai’s problems.

Dubai Burj Al Arab Hotel

Extravagant Dubai

Dubai is part of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the Middle East. Despite its small size, it is arguably the most famous destination in the Middle East with many signature real estate developments. Some of these include the largest mall (Dubai Mall), tallest tower (Burj Dubai), and the most luxurious hotel (Burj Al Arab, pictured above).

Dubai World

Dubai World is a government-holding company of many well-known Dubai companies such as Nakheel and DP World. From this perspective, Dubai World is similar to Temasek Holdings in Singapore.

Nakheel develops the world-famous man-made island Palm Jumeirah, where we can find the huge Atlantis hotel & resort, a luxurious villa owned by David Beckham, and numerous other private homes owned by the rich & wealthy. DP World was the company that outbid Singapore’s PSA in 2006 to take over P&O from the UK, propelling it to the world’s 3rd largest port operator.

Dubai World’s announcement

Dubai World announced yesterday that it needs a “standstill” on its debt repayments for 6 months. This means Dubai World wants to postpone any debt it is supposed to pay between Dec 2009 to end of May 2010.

Why the big deal?

There are 3 key reasons why Dubai World’s announcement shocked the world:

  • Just before the announcement, Dubai World has just raised $5 billion from two Middle Eastern banks in Abu Dhabi. This is more than sufficient to pay off the $4 billion debt from Nakheel due for payment on Dec 14. Strange, what other problems are Dubai World hiding?
  • Dubai World has $59 billion of liabilities, or about 74% of all debt incurred by Dubai’s government-owned companies. If Dubai World cannot pay up, the majority of banks and other creditors that lent money to Dubai can be in big trouble.
  • A credit rating agency has said that Dubai’s announcement may be considered a default on its payment obligations.  Many Dubai bonds are now downgraded to “junk” status. Will Dubai ever pay up? There is no guarantee that Dubai won’t announce another “standstill” if it still doesn’t have the money to pay off its debts in 6 months. Some analysts are beginning to compare Dubai with Iceland that went bankrupt in Oct 2008.

What got Dubai into this mess?

Dubai created a miracle by building a modern city from almost nothing. It was also a trend setter in the Middle East. When other countries and emirates in the region saw the potential benefits of what Dubai is doing with its huge projects, they follow suit.

Those of us far away from the Middle East will assume that Dubai made all this happen with its oil money, but that’s simply not true. In reality, Dubai has very little oil. It knows this but wants to build up a vibrant economy anyway. The solution? Borrow lots of money and build huge malls, hotels & homes that are bigger and better than everyone else. Do this, and people will come to visit and invest, brilliant isn’t it?

The problem with this approach is also simple. Many of Dubai’s developments will take years to complete. Every mega real estate project needs lots of money and will require even more time to generate cash for its owners. This was not a problem as long as Dubai can keep borrowing money from banks or its richer UAE neighbour, Abu Dhabi. But when the world goes into a recession, there is hardly any money floating around, and less people and tourists to spend on big-ticket items. All of a sudden, Dubai becomes less appealing.

What does this mean for investors?

Markets worldwide reacted negatively to Dubai World’s announcement. Banks are directly affected as they will not get a cent from Dubai World for the next 6 months. What’s more, there is a possibility that Dubai World may not pay up eventually, eventhough this is currently less likely. CashBench expects markets to be more volatile over the short-term and investors should continue to keep up with market news. In 6 months, we need to especially track if Dubai World can restart debt repayments.

Dubai World made this announcement when the US markets were closed for the Thanksgiving holiday, with the Middle East and many other countries celebrating the Eid holiday today (Hari Raya Haji holiday in Singapore and Malaysia). European stock markets remained open yesterday and have dropped by about 3% generally. Expect US to open lower when it reopens after Thanksgiving. Stock markets in Asia have fallen yesterday too. As worldwide risk aversion has increased, there is now short-term downward pressure on Gold prices and a corresponding upward lift to the US dollar.

What else can we learn from Dubai?

There are at least 2 lessons that we can learn from Dubai, no matter how near or far away we are from the Middle East:

  • Borrow within our means. Don’t over-borrow like Dubai. Whether we are borrowing for a new car, a new home or even for a loved one’s education, we must be pretty confident of paying off the monthly repayments. Using our credit cards is also a form of borrowing. Only buy what we can afford, the credit card bill will always catch up with us at the end of the month.

  • Understand the impact of buying a new home. For most of us, we have to borrow from the bank to buy a new apartment or house. This is a very long-term commitment and is similar to the long-term real estate projects in Dubai. We don’t own the home until we pay up the entire loan!

    What’s more, home loans lasts even longer than many marriages. By buying a home, we are committing ourselves to regularly paying off a loan that may stretch for as long as 30 years. During this period of time, the bank expects us to pay up no matter what happens. There may be a recession going on, we may suddenly need to pay huge hospital bills for our spouse or children, or we may even be fired from our job. No matter what happens, we are expected to continue repaying our loans. 

    If that’s the case, we also have to make sure that we can repay our home loan regularly, no matter what happens, unless we want to be another Dubai.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

November 2009 Market Update

CashBench looks at some recent developments in Asia and around the world, and highlight trends that are important to investors. For November, this includes the new “Nasdaq” board in China, the Brazilian currency, and gold prices.

1. Irrational investors on China’s new “Nasdaq” board

China opened a new “Nasdaq” style stock exchange in Shenzhen on Oct 30 that allows smaller companies to be listed. This ChiNext exchange has been planned for a while, but the speculative investors rushing into this new stock exchange are already creating a stock bubble. Since it opened a week ago, the initial list of 28 stocks has gained as much as 210% and “circuit-breakers” meant to reduce speculation has been activated repeatedly. Some companies now have a PE (price to earnings) ratio of more than 100. As a comparison, even the bubbly Shanghai stock market averages a PE ratio of only 30. CashBench sees this as a good reminder of the higher risks in investing in the more volatile Chinese stock markets. More importantly, investors who directly or indirectly invest in China should take note that bubbles will eventually burst, sooner or later.

2. Brazilian currency gained 30 percent over one year

The US dollar is expected to continue its depreciation over the short to medium term because of the massive amount of money spent to stimulate its economy. Despite that, unemployment has reached 10.2% in the latest quarter. This is higher than expected and simply means lots of people are still out of work.  Recover will continue and growth will occur, but a depreciating US dollar means some currencies must appreciate. Investors will have noted that Asian currencies are rising against the US dollar lately, but the Brazilian currency (Brazilian real) has gained even more. Over the past year, that gain was 30%. What’s even more significant to investors is this: the Brazilian government has just put in place measures to slow foreign investments, but an International Monetary Fund (IMF) official has said it’s unlikely to work. Time to buy some Brazilian real?

3.  Gold hitting new highs above US$1,100 per ounce

Gold has been on an upward trend and has recently hit US$1,100 an ounce. The weakness in the US dollar and the underlying risk of inflation in the US and other developed countries is fuelling its rise. It wasn’t too long ago that Gold was at US$1,000 (September 2009), which means it has risen by 10% in just 2 months. Not exactly a good time to rush into gold investments for really short-term buyers, but there may be room for further growth as the US dollar is likely to weaken further, and there’s a reasonable chance of higher inflation occurring when global recovery is in full swing. Those who have some time to monitor gold prices may find it a worthwhile investment.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Review of CPF LIFE

CPF LIFE (Lifelong Income Scheme For The Elderly) kicks in since September to ensure that seniors in Singapore have an assured source of income for life. Unlike the mass media, CashBench will not focus on the 4 CPF LIFE plans but reviews the scheme itself, including 3 key aspects that every Singapore resident must know.


CPF LIFE Overview:

The CPF LIFE scheme is essentially meant to be an improvement to the Minimum Sum Scheme (MSS). In the older Minimum Sum Scheme, a minimum amount of savings in our CPF accounts is set aside with the CPF Board to provide a regular source of income for retirement needs. This minimum amount is referred to as the minimum sum. However, this minimum sum is slowly reduced by each monthly payout during retirement. Therefore, income from the MSS will last for about 20 years only. Seniors who live beyond 20 years after retirement will lose this source of income, perhaps, when they need it most.

CPF LIFE … promise of a monthly source of income that will last for life, without any age limits.

The biggest change brought about by the CPF LIFE scheme is the promise of a monthly source of income that will last for life, without any age limits. Beyond this promise and key objective, the CPF LIFE scheme has 4 plans: Basic, Balanced, Plus and Income. They are different from one another in one important area: whether there is a bequest, and how much is the bequest amount.

A bequest essentially allows a senior to leave some money to his/her children, spouse or other beneficiaries after death. The Basic plan promises the most bequest amount, while the Income plan leaves no bequest at all. On the other hand, the Basic plan offers the least monthly payout, while the Income plan offers the most payout per month.

CPF members are free to choose which plan suits their needs best, but they cannot change from one plan to another after making a selection. Those approaching retirement can choose to remain in the Minimum Sum Scheme while younger folks must join the CPF LIFE scheme upon retirement in the future.

With this overview, let’s look at some key aspects that every Singapore resident must know about the CPF LIFE scheme.

1. Monthly payout is guaranteed but not fixed

While CPF LIFE guarantees a regular source of monthly income, the amount received is not fixed, and will be reviewed every year. Every senior under the CPF LIFE scheme will receive an initial monthly payout based on a number of factors.

… lower interest rates and a higher average age of death among seniors may lead to lower monthly payouts in the future.

After the initial monthly payout is determined, two key factors are used to determine if the payout amount should be revised. These are (a) interest rates, and (b) average age that seniors pass away. In general, lower interest rates and a higher average age of death among seniors may lead to lower monthly payouts in the future. Unfortunately, these are not factors within our control.

In addition, the numbers that are shown in newspapers or CPF guides for typical monthly payouts are meant for those approaching retirement soon. These figures do not apply to those far away from retirement now. Given the uncertainty in the monthly payout amounts, it is therefore wise for working professionals not to depend on CPF LIFE as the only source of income when retirement comes along.

2. Monthly payout is not adjusted for inflation

While chatting with a friend recently, CashBench was told that a bowl of fishball noodles costs only 50 cents in the early 1970s. Fast forward to 2009, this bowl of fishball noodles costs at least $2.00 now. Inflation sounds like a big word, but it simply refers to the gradual increase in prices of things we buy. Using fishball noodles as a measure, inflation over the past 4 decades is about 3.6% a year.

Looking at CPF LIFE again, it is important to realize that the monthly payouts are not adjusted for inflation. This means the monthly payout remains the same even if prices of things we buy get more and more expensive. For example, if we receive $600 monthly today, we can happily buy 300 bowls of fishball noodles. That’s quite a lot of noodles! However, a bowl of fishball noodles will cost $2.80 after 10 years if inflation stays at 3.6% per year. By then, we can only buy 214 bowls of noodles with the same $600 payout. That’s a reduction of almost 30%!

… the monthly payout we receive will buy less and less stuffs as we grow older.

Essentially, the monthly payout we receive under CPF LIFE will buy less and less stuffs as we grow older. For this reason, it is again important not to rely on CPF LIFE as the only means of income during retirement. Instead, we should also invest in assets that can give returns that either match or is higher than inflation.

3. Bequest amount is not guaranteed, and not fixed

One reason why CashBench is not overly concerned on an in-depth discussion among the 4 CPF LIFE plans is the fact that bequest amounts are not guaranteed. While the Basic, Balanced and Plus plans provide for bequest, it is impossible to determine beforehand how much will be given. In fact, there may not be any bequest eventually. Why?

If a senior received payouts more than the premium he/she initially paid, there will be no bequest.

To join the CPF LIFE scheme, the initial money set aside is now called a premium, instead of the minimum sum in the Minimum Sum Scheme (MSS). The bequest amount left to the beneficiaries is calculated as this premium minus all monthly payouts given out before death. If a senior received payouts more than the premium he/she initially paid, there will be no bequest. This is true no matter what CPF LIFE plan he/she is in.

The maximum premium payable to join CPF LIFE right now (exclude any bonus top-ups) is S$117,000. Any bequest received by the beneficiaries will not be significant unless a retiree passes away very early during retirement. Even if the retiree dies before any payouts is given, the maximum that a beneficiary can receive is $117,000. Even by today’s standards, this is not enough to buy most HDB flats.

What’s more, the exact bequest amount is uncertain as we won’t know exactly when we’ll pass away. From another perspective, beneficiaries will also not know how much to expect from the bequest. What does all these mean? A senior who is really keen to leave a gift for beneficiaries should probably not depend on CPF LIFE as the primary means of bequest.