Tag Archives: financial crisis

DBS – shocks and stress in holding stocks

Today marks the 10th anniversary when Lehman Brothers fell into bankruptcy on 15 September 2008. Despite the on-going tariff war between the US and China, there is a general sea of calmness in the major stock exchanges all over the world.  Back then, scene was very different. For several weeks before 15 September and several months after that, the front few pages of our daily newspapers were full of bad news.

Lehman Brother’s downfall also pulled along with it several big banks and financial institutions. AIG, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac were all at risks, and were awaiting government bailout. With the crisis hitting the big financial institutions in the world’s largest economy at that time, it is almost certain that small and open economies, like Singapore, was going to feel the onslaught as well. The STI fell from the high at close of 3,875.77 made on 11 October 2007 to 2,486.55 on 15 September 2008, retreating 35.8%. It did not stop there. As bad news, continued to flush all over the news media, the STI fell further. DBS, a good proxy of the Singapore economy, and a heavy weight on the STI certainly cannot escape from this avalanche. Its share price fell from more than $20 to less than $10 by the end December 2008, retreating more than 50%. Everywhere is fear, and we did not know which blue-chip stock, in particular which financial stock, was going to go under. Fund managers were all selling as redemptions picked up speed.

Perhaps, the stubborn side of me helped. I decided to swim against this tide, buy a few shares, close my eyes, close my ears, go for a long haul, do not sell irrespective of whatever happened, and see how it would turn out after 10 years. In the worst-case situation, I would lose some savings. If I have been wanting to own DBS, this would have been a good opportunity. In a financial crisis of such a scale, huge wealth is transferred one person’s pocket to another’s pocket. Debtors will be punished, creditors will be rewarded. Spenders will become poor, and savers will feel rich. Cash is king. However, cash is still only cash if it remains in the bank. So, this should be the time to put our cash into good use. Splurge and buy up assets that had never been put on such discounts, was the key.

A few weeks after purchasing the stock, came the next bombshell. DBS decided to raise rights, 1 for 2 shares, with a whopping 45% discount at $5.42 based on the last day trading price at $9.85. It literally forced existing shareholders to take up the rights. So, no choice, I dipped further into my pocket to pick up the rights. (I remember, I tried to buy extra rights, but I believe I only managed to get a few shares to round off the lots due to over subscription of the rights.)

In the midst of such a crisis and with a much bigger market float after the rights issue, the share price continued to fall. In fact, the share price went even below $7. It certainly, took some grits and guts to continue to hold the shares. Even at $7, it was still a long way to fall if it was really going to be very bad. My intuition impressed upon me that if DBS were to fail at that time, we would all be in real serious trouble. Our property price would plunge, our car value would be decimated and our Singapore dollars would be very unstable in the forex market. So, whether we are on shares, on property or on cash, it was not going to matter. And, with the US dollars also plunging at that time, the only shelter is probably gold. After all, it was only 10 years ago then that DBS gobbled up POSB. In the minds of those people on the street, POSB was still the people’s bank. It is unlikely that it would be allowed to fail. The epicenter of this financial crisis was in the US. We are only feeling the effects of this financial tsunami. The question was how low could DBS touch, and not whether it would fail. It turned up well, and the fear was quite short-lived. The stock came up back again after March 2009, when STI temporarily went below 1,500.

Was it plain sailing after that? Not quite. I should ask, were there anything along the way to de-rail holding the stock? Certainly yes. When I purchased the stocks, my objective was to go long, and very long and to disregard the share price. So, the only ‘financial benefit’ was the dividend from the stock. At that time, this ‘giam-siap’ (stingy) bank, gave only $0.60 per share as dividend.  When a reliable source, told me that the bond coupon rate of Swiber was at 7%, I felt stupid again. If we invest in the bond at the cost of $250k, the yearly coupon would have been $17,500. A back-of-envelope calculations of the equivalent amount, would have been about 15,000 DBS shares at the prevailing price of between $16.50 and $17.00.  For 15,000 DBS shares, the dividend would only be $9,000. And this stark difference would carry on yearly, for probably 4-5 years, until the bond matured. If one were to chase for the last dollar, it would make sense to sell DBS shares and buy Swiber. So, would it make sense to sell off the shares and buy bond instead? Nobody knows what was going to happen. But, I do believe when the bond yields were high at that time, many people actually switched out of equities and buy bonds as well as other high yield instruments. It was lucky. I chose to remain in equities. The reason was that there was literally no secondary market. If we really wanted to sell, nobody was going to buy from our hands, unless we depress our price significantly. Precisely, at that time, due to liquidity, the corporate bond of Genting was trading at a discount, while the perpetual bonds were trading at a premium. So, if we want to get into it, the only choice was to hold corporate bonds to maturity. It turned out that the decision was right. Swiber defaulted and remain suspended today.  And, DBS was no longer a ‘giap-siap’ bank as it used to be. It doubled its dividend.  And, right now the yield based on the average purchased price would have enjoyed an even higher yield compared to Swiber or the any REITs. In fact, this stock would have become an equity-bond situation mentioned in the book “Warren Buffet and the Interpretation of Financial Statements”, by Mary Buffet and David Clark, 2008. It left me scratching my head what was the term ‘equity-bond’ really mean at that time when I was reading that book. Now, I understand. In a few words, it means to buy an equity, let the share price move up to its intrinsic value. As the dividend starts to move up back-on-the-heels of the equity price, we would have, in effect, enjoyed the yields of bonds.

Then again, were there any more scares along the way? Certainly yes. When China suddenly devalued the RMB in 2016, it was envisaged that China was not doing well on the economic front. That again pushed down the STI. In particular, the bank stocks were hit. All the three banks stocks were trading about 10% below book value. DBS, once again, fell below $14 for the first time in the few years. It had been languishing around $16-$17 per share almost throughout the year 2016. Only in 2017 did DBS share price climb up slowly and steadily, following of several quarters of good financial results. With the announcement of its new dividend benchmark, it has arbitrarily created a floor for the share price. If the bank continues maintain its dividend payout of $1.20 per share, it should help maintain the share price north of $24 per share, giving a yield of about close to 5% per share.

It has come a long way, and will there be more volatility going forward. Certainly yes, the tariff issues between the US and China is still yet to be resolved. Also, for so many years, the interest rates all over the world have been held extremely low. Debts were now at their historical highs once again. If FED were to increase interest rates aggressively, I would not be surprise that another crisis could erupt, maybe, this time, the epicenter is nearer to us. Then again, DBS share price can get hit again.

Disclaimer – The above arguments are the personal opinions of the writer. They do not serve as recommendations to buy or sell the mentioned securities or the indices or ETFs or unit trusts related to it.

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Brennen has been investing in the stock market for 28 years. He trains occasionally and is a managing partner for BP Wealth Learning Centre. He is the instructor for two online courses on InvestingNote – Value Investing: The Essential Guide and Value Investing: The Ultimate Guide. He is also the author of the book – “Building Wealth Together Through Stocks” which is available in both soft and hardcopy.

Isn’t this similar to the 90s?

The spate of events that happened in the last six months reminded me of what we had experienced in the 90s. More than 20 years have zoomed passed us and how many of us remember those events that had taken place. In fact, many of us would have, either forgotten what happened or too young to know what had happened then. Based the historical time-line, it is likely that those in the Generation Z or Generation Y may not have really experienced the times of high interest rate environment, let alone making comparison between now and then.

By today, that business environment of the 1990s seems to be re-surfacing itself each passing day. There are just too many similarities. Let me quickly bring out a few examples. First of all, in the past few years, we had enjoyed a phenomenal economic growth, and as such, the stock market index was pushed to its high (second only to the all-time high of 3,875 in made on 11 October 2007). Whether regionally, or Asia as a whole, we were all doing well. This was a complete copy of what happened in the early 90s. The regional growth was so phenomenal that many economies were given names, namely, five tigers and four dragons. At that time, the local stock market index or STI raced from about 1000 in 1990 to about 2500 in 1994. Back then, there was a Dr M, who was holding the post of the prime minister of Malaysia, and by today, he returned as a prime minister after having left the office for many years. In between his two terms of office were two prime ministers, Abdullah Bidawi and Najib Razak. Then, in the year around 1994, the FED hiked up the interest rate several times. Is it not that what we are seeing now – in the midst of an increasing interest rate environment? The US economy at that time under the Clinton administration was so strong that the US stock market powered from 4,000 at the beginning of the administration to about 10,000 when Bill Clinton handed over the US presidency. That was also the period when the FED chair, Mr Alan Greenspan, coined the term “irrational exuberance” to describe the crowd madness of the stock market. The economic environment was so brisk that even the Lewinsky scandal could not derail Bill Clinton’s presidency term. Towards the 2nd half of the 90s, many people were expecting the Dow Jones to crash as it continued breaking new highs. On the contrary, it was the Asian stock markets that crashed leading to the Asian Financial Crisis (AFC) while the Dow Jones was pretty unscathed. Isn’t it that similar to what is happening in US now. For many years, many people were expecting the Dow Jones to fall, but at the moment, we are seeing the Asian stocks markets spiraling downwards more than the Dow Jones. Look at COE prices. In 1994, the COE price hit all-time high of $100k and then started to decline to hit a low of $50 in January 1998 (though in different category). In a similar way, COE prices are likely to continue to decline as business prospects gloom. Then, there was also a sudden property curb on May 1996 to stem property prices. Isn’t it similar to what the government announced three days ago regarding property prices? Since the property curb in 1996, property prices never really recovered until the recent years.

Frankly, all these are not for the sake of digging up the old history. By drawing out the similarities, it helps us get a glimpse of what we could expect going forward. If history can be the guide, what we had seen in the past 6 months or so, could even be only the prelude to a series of events that lead to more difficult times some time later. As earlier mentioned the 1st half of the 90s were the good years of phenomenal growth, and everybody became complacent. Many governments were taking on mega-projects that worth millions of dollars (millions of dollars is like billions of dollars in today’s terms). Just like today, many Asian economies, apart from Japan, were comparatively small back then. (China, itself, was focusing on its internal development and was less exposed to the outside world at that time.) To keep economies stable, both for internal control and export, many Asian countries pegged their currencies to the USD.   In response to the increasing interest rates, funds were moving out of Asia causing Asian currencies to fall. Isn’t it what is happening to the Philippines peso and Indonesian rupiah reported recently? At that time, the Indonesian rupiah was about 2,900 against one USD before the AFC and then spiraled to 16,000 rupiah against one USD at the peak of the crisis, shrinking 5,500%. Imagine, an Indonesian company originally owed a debt of US$10m before the AFC, the debt would have ballooned to a USD debt of 55 million without any wrong-doing on the part of the company. Really, how many companies can withstand such onslaught? To stem fund outflow, Asian economies were correspondingly forced to increase their interest rates. This, ironically, further stifled the lifeline of many Asian economies, which is to export their way out of recession. Increasing interest rates makes it more expensive to export and cheaper to import. The trickiness in such a falling currency avalanche often leads to more falls because of concerted speculations, causing many governments to dip into the reserves in an effort to maintain their currency peg to the USD. Before long, many government found their coffers depleted and had to let their currencies into free-falls by unpegging against the USD. One-by-one, the economies succumbed to the AFC, and had to be rescued by the IMF. Apart from the currency turmoil, there is another knock-on effect as well – a political instability in the region. Within a period of 2 to 3 years, Thailand and Indonesian respectively changed their prime minister and president several times.

By today, the Asian economies are generally stronger and have stronger financial muscles to ward off a similar financial tsunami that had wiped out the Asian economies back in the late 90s. The unpegging of their respective currencies to the USD acts as a counterbalance to the trade mechanism, which is vital for many small Asian economies. Unfortunately, based on past historically, increasing interest rates has never been beneficial to small open economies including Singapore. Added to this gloom is the increasing stakes in the trade war between the world’s two largest economies. The trade war and the retaliation actions put up by the trading partners are likely to push small open economies into difficult times. Personally, I think the 2nd quarter results will not reflect the full impact yet, but it could surface by year-end. Unless there is some kind of breakthrough in the negotiations, the worst is yet to come. The end results could be recessions and job losses. It’s time to put on our seat belts!

A video clip on the expectations in the coming months has been posted in the private group discussion for the students of “Value Investing – The Ultimate Guide.”

Disclaimer – The above arguments are the personal opinions of the writer. They do not serve as recommendations to buy or sell the mentioned securities or the indices or ETFs or unit trusts related to it.

Brennen has been investing in the stock market for 28 years. He trains occasionally and is a managing partner for BP Wealth Learning Centre. He is the instructor for two online courses on InvestingNote – Value Investing: The Essential Guide and Value Investing: The Ultimate Guide. He is also the author of the book – “Building Wealth Together Through Stocks” which is available in both soft and hardcopy.