Living With the Bear Market

We humans are a complex bunch. I have heard that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. With covid, entire countries seem to have gone through their own version of this, which may or may not have included these stages: zero covid, flattening the curve, lockdowns, mass vaccination, and finally living with covid. In the end, it seems, we have to accept and live with whatever pains us.

So are we in a bear market yet? Some would argue not – the S&P 500 is down some 18% from its January peak, and bear markets are defined as falls of 20%. So they are correct, but the NASDAQ has already passed 20%, so it sure does sound a lot like denial, don’t you think? I’m generally an optimist, but I’ve come to appreciate the value of time as I get older, and therefore think we can all save some of this valuable commodity by skipping past anger, bargaining and depression and moving to accept the bear! Grrrr…

Spotted in Marunouchi recently.

So what is it like living with a bear? Well, let’s take a look at some of the qualities of this charming beast: Historically bear markets occur every 3-5 years, and on average they last about a year. The S&P 500 typically falls around 33% during bear markets, although a third of these delightful periods have seen drops of over 40%. Bear markets typically end, and bull markets begin, when investor confidence is at a low point. In terms of character, although they may start with a crash, bear markets tend to be a slow grind down, peppered with the odd burst of optimism. Yes, bear market rallies are very much a thing, usually spurred by some piece of good news. However, the rallies are generally short-lived, and then the grind downwards resumes.

As you have probably already guessed, trading the bear is not as easy as you may think. Sure, we would all like to sell the top and then go to the beach, only to return to buy the beginning of the next bull run, but trying to do that can seriously damage your wealth if the market turns around quicker than expected. This is from a post of mine back in 2017:

In the years 1980 to 2015, the S&P 500 experienced an average intra-year decline of 14.2%. However, the market ended up achieving a positive return in 27 of those 36 years. That’s 75% of the time. You cannot afford to be sitting on the sidelines while this is happening. In fact, the opportunity cost of doing nothing will cost you far more than any of the corrections, bear markets, and flash crashes:

“From 1996 through 2015, the S&P 500 returned an average of 8.2% a year. But if you missed out on the top 10 trading days during those 20 years, your returns dwindled to just 4.5% a year. Can you believe it? Your returns would have been cut almost in half just by missing the 10 best trading days in 20 years! It gets worse! If you missed out on the top 20 trading days, your returns dropped from 8.2% a year to a paltry 2.1%. And if you missed out on the top 30 trading days? Your returns vanished into thin air, falling all the way to zero!” (from Unshakeable: Your Financial Freedom Playbook by Tony Robbins)

So how do you make the most of the slow grind downwards without trying to be too clever and missing out on the best trading days? First of all you need to stay calm. Bear markets are not the time for panic and dumping investments out of hand. If you are taking the time to read this blog you likely have a long term plan and there’s no need to deviate from that. Know your risk profile, stay diversified, and take this as an opportunity to accumulate assets at lower prices. Dollar cost averaging is your friend in the bear market. Rather than trying to catch the absolute bottom, keep investing little by little at regular intervals and build up your holdings at a nice average cost. Buy quality, buy what you believe in – this is not the time for speculation on penny stocks.

As to how this particular bear will play out, my thoughts, for what they are worth, are as follows:

  • The Ukraine situation is obviously a factor in inflation, but the main driver here is the Federal Reserve and other central banks.
  • Stocks in general, and tech stocks in particular, did well in the low interest rate environment during covid – lots of stimulus!
  • Now inflation is 8.3% and the Fed funds rate is 0.75%, and it’s a similar story elsewhere in developed markets ex-Japan.
  • The Fed has to close that gap – they will keep raising rates until they close it / inflation cools down, or until something breaks…
  • Means pain for stocks while this goes on – we could still go lower and there will be a plenty of volatility. I don’t see capitulation yet.
  • I think it will be later in the second half of the year before things start to look better – there are already signs that inflation is cooling off a little. We either get out of this because inflation eases off, allowing the Fed some breathing space, or something breaks and the Fed starts cutting rates again to head off the crisis.

How about crypto?

Crypto bear markets are a rare beast, in that they are programmed into the code of the leading crypto asset and arrive with the regularity of a Japanese train. If you don’t understand the Bitcoin 4 year halving cycle, you will constantly be bombarded with narratives to explain the pain, from the Mt Gox hack to the Quadriga scandal, to the Luna / UST debacle of late, there will always be a narrative to explain something that is actually pre-programmed. 2014 was a bear market, 2018 was a bear market, and so here we are in 2022. As with stocks, in crypto bear markets you accumulate quality. That means Bitcoin and Ethereum. Keep your hands off those alts unless you are really confident in their long term value proposition. Even then, prepare to be burned as the LUNAtics have been this week. Bad things happen to alts in bear markets… Bitcoin is down some 60% from its high so far this time around. Keep in mind that peak to trough 80% is the norm. BTC fell from $20,00 to around $3,000 in 2018. In the 2021 bull market it reached $69,000. If you have the nerve, now is the time to accumulate, and 2025 is the when the next bull market train comes along. Act accordingly and embrace the bear.

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

The Weak Yen Dilemma

If you watch Japanese news you will have noticed a new topic that is featured in almost every broadcast. Along with Ukraine and Covid, no news program is complete without discussion of 円安 or the weak yen. JPY has indeed taken a battering this last few weeks, slipping from the 112 range vs. USD to as low as 129. I also noticed a lot of discussion on Twitter as to the reasons for the drop and what to do about it, so let’s take a look.

Why has this happened? There is no limit to how deep you can go into exploring the reason for the yen’s fall, but the simple explanation is always best: Currently the US is raising interest rates, and Japan is not. That makes the USD a more attractive currency than JPY. It’s simply supply and demand at work.

What are the effects of a weak yen? The Japanese government and the Bank of Japan have been perfectly happy with a weaker yen for some time. It’s a big boost to Japanese exporters as it makes Japanese products cheaper overseas. However, you can have too much of a good thing. The current yen level is certainly doing more damage than good to the Japanese economy as businesses are hit with the double whammy of rising energy prices and a weaker currency. For the Japanese consumer, who is already facing rising prices, it means the cost of imported goods are going to rise even further. In a country with stagnant wages that means less money in the pockets of the populace, who in turn are cutting back on the little luxuries. This leads to a vicious circle where businesses must keep the cost of their products low, because low wages mean people won’t buy them otherwise, so those businesses make less profit and are therefore unable to raise wages… It’s not a pretty picture.

For the foreign resident in Japan a weak yen can bring either joy or pain, depending on your situation. Paid in dollars? Life is good! Paid in yen with expenses / debt overseas? Times are hard. Trips back home are certainly going to be more expensive. There are probably things you wish you had thought about earlier, which is why this financial planning thing is kind of important.

How long will this last? The simple answer to this is nobody knows. The last time the yen was anywhere near these levels was 2015. However in 2012 it was 76 yen to the dollar. So it’s unlikely it will go on forever – things move in cycles. That said, we are in a precarious place at the moment. Usually if the US is raising interest rates it is to keep pace with inflation. However inflation in the US is already almost 8% and the federal funds rate is only 0.25%. The Fed is well behind the curve, but is sharply aware that raising rates too rapidly will crash the economy. So expect the US interest rate to keep rising through this year, which means more pain for Japan. Also, as noted in this thread by Santiago Capital, what is happening now is the Bank of Japan is sacrificing its currency to save its bond market. Other nations should take note as they may end up doing the same thing further down the line…

What could reverse it? Firstly, what won’t reverse the current position is Japan raising rates, because that is not going to happen. That would sink the whole ship. The thing most likely to bring things back into balance is inflation starting to ease in the second half of the year, meaning the Fed is under less pressure to raise rates. So if you are looking for a ray of hope, keep an eye on that.

What can I do? Here is the crux of the matter. Obviously what you should do depends on your own situation, but now is as good a time as ever to make sure you understand what your base currency is. Your base currency is the currency you are planning to spend your savings in. If your BC is JPY, you don’t really have a big issue. Real inflation in Japan is probably running at around 2% so you should look at investing in some dividend paying Japanese stocks to beat that. (see my previous post) If you have money overseas that you would like to bring to Japan, now is a great time to do it!

If your BC is something other than JPY and your money is in yen, you have a dilemma: It’s not a good time to exchange your JPY for your base currency right now, but if you don’t you are losing purchasing power in your BC to inflation. I’ll use the US as an example: inflation in the US is 8% – if you have money in the bank in Japan you are losing 8% per year to inflation. If you switch that money to USD cash you are still losing 7.75%! So ideally you want to have that money invested in USD in something that will, on the average, generate an 8% p.a. return, which pretty much means US stocks. So you have to weigh the trade off – is it worth taking the currency hit to get into the correct currency and get the money invested? If that was me, I have to say I would be inclined to wait for now and see how things develop in the coming months, but I wouldn’t want to do nothing for too long.

If you have debt overseas, such as a student loan, which you are paying interest on, I would probably say you should bite the bullet and keep paying it, despite the poor exchange rate. That debt isn’t going to get any smaller if you leave it.

Finally, if you understand, or are learning Japanese I came across this video by Nakata Atsuhiko, which is both a wonderfully simple explanation of the current weak yen situation, and an excellent Japanese comprehension exercise where you will likely learn some new financial terms.

Hang in there everyone!

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

2022 Q1 Roundup

It’s been almost two months since my last post. Apologies for the silence but we have been busy at home with a new baby girl, born in early February! I must say that, despite the massive disruption caused by covid, working mostly at home has been a blessing this last couple of months. Some things really do only happen once or twice in a lifetime and it’s important to be present for them.

So I thought I would do a general roundup on things I have been thinking about during working hours, and how I am investing in this somewhat turbulent environment.

In my 2020 Investment Outlook post in December I wrote about having a view that guides your investment plan, and being prepared to change it if necessary. My focus for the year was on inflation and how Central Bank’s efforts to fight it would affect the investment environment. This, of course, has been somewhat overshadowed by the tragic events unfolding in Ukraine. I have no experience in international conflict, so little of value to add in terms of how things may play out there, but obviously we all hope that peace is restored as soon as possible.

The war has, of course, had a huge impact on the inflation narrative, as anyone who has visited a gas station recently will know. I actually accumulated a satellite holding in energy stocks during 2021 based on 2022 being a year of re-opening / reflation, with business getting back to normal, more travel, and therefore higher consumption of energy. It actually looks like energy prices could have some way to go, but I am out of those positions now and have rotated into tech stocks, which took a pretty good hit this quarter, and Japanese dividend stocks – largely inspired by @CacheThatCheque, who I interviewed in December. (that post is here)

My core holdings are unchanged, as they only require rebalancing once a year.

So what can we expect for the rest of the year? Well, the Federal Reserve went ahead and ended bond purchases on schedule, and then proceeded with a clearly telegraphed rate hike of .25% this month, and the market has reacted surprisingly favourably. It is said that stocks climb a wall or worry, and that’s exactly what they are doing at the moment. With more rate hikes to come I still expect plenty of volatility, but I don’t see any reason for big changes in allocation. Another dip in Q2 and a strong second half of the year is my working hypothesis.

Inflation means sitting in cash is a losing trade. Your spending power is being eroded day by day. And if you hold JPY cash, but are planning on spending the money in the US, for example, you are losing almost 8% per year and taking currency risk. However, investing overseas has been somewhat complicated by exactly that risk, as we have seen a sharp weakening of the yen – the Bank of Japan is by no means ready to taper and just announced they would purchase an unlimited amount of 10 year government bonds at 0.25%. If Japan is your home for the long term, I would estimate the real inflation rate, taking into account recent energy prices, at around 2% per year. This is why I think Japan dividend stocks are interesting as there are plenty of opportunities to earn more than 2% if you are willing to take a little risk. If you don’t have the time to research individual stocks, take a look at something like this Japan high dividend ETF:

As readers know, I also invest in crypto, and things have gotten interesting there again recently. A few weeks ago, Terra founder Do Kwon announced that they would be buying some $10 billion worth of Bitcoin to back their UST stablecoin over the coming weeks. And true to his word, Terra set about buying some $125,000,000 in BTC per day last week. If you are wondering if $125 mill per day is a lot, it is. And if you are wondering how you go about buying this much BTC, the answer is TWAP, or Time-Weighted Average Price strategy.

All this twapping appears to have been the catalyst for a rally in BTC to around $47,000, which is close to the year open price. L1 alts have also picked up significantly as a result.

One thing I am watching with interest is the Grayscale Bitcoin Trust (GBTC). The trust, which simply buys and holds BTC with a 2% p.a. custody fee is still trading at almost a 28% discount to the value of the assets it holds. At $30.8 bill in assets under management it is major contender for conversion to an ETF, if it receives approval from the US Securities and Exchange Commission. So GBTC, which can be bought through US brokerage accounts and retirement plans, offers the opportunity to invest in BTC at a 28% discount to current price, with a strong possibility that it will be converted to an ETF, whereby that discount will disappear. If you believe in BTC long term, it actually looks like a better buy than the asset itself. Obviously investing in crypto is high risk, but food for thought…

Best wishes to everyone. I hope you are enjoying the warmer weather and the cherry blossom!

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

Embracing Volatility – How to Buy Low and Sell High

It was not even a month ago that I wrote a 2022 Investment Outlook predicting there was some volatility coming our way, and following the US Federal Reserve’s commitment to tackle inflation, the markets did not disappoint. The S&P 500 is down some 10% from its peak, the NASDAQ 15%, and Bitcoin, being Bitcoin, dumped over 50% in a matter of weeks. Welcome to 2022!

The last time I heard the term “indiscriminate selling” was March 2020, as stock markets were actually being closed early for falling to their limits for several days running. Risk happened fast as investors dumped everything: stocks, bonds, gold, crypto, you name it. Everything went to cash. There wasn’t a lot of thinking going on, just a mad rush for the exits.

We haven’t reached that level of panic so far this year, but in the US the steady pulse of easy monetary policy is fading, and as I write this the Nikkei 225 index is down over 3% on the day. There is clearly more volatility to come. So how do you invest in this environment? Selling indiscriminately along with the herd is clearly not the smart way.

As usual the strategy needs to be broken down into core and satellite. The core being the 70-80% of your portfolio that is broadly diversified, and satellite being the 20-30% you may have in something a little more sexy.

Core holdings – I have already written about how to buy low and sell high in your core allocation here. In short, you establish a strategic asset allocation that meets your risk profile and then rebalance it once per year. The rebalance in effect sells part of holdings that have gone up in value and reallocates them to the holdings that have gone down. That’s it, no further action required!

Satellite Holdings – Now for the fun part. Satellite holdings are generally invested in assets that add a little more spice to your overall portfolio. They usually have a higher risk / return profile and may change over time depending on market conditions and what is hot. So they could include an allocation to smaller companies, emerging markets, emerging technology, commodities, private equity, and of course crypto. I would note here that for someone who is retired, satellite holdings may actually be lower risk, alternative income-focussed assets, but for today we are talking about the racy stuff!

Higher risk plays tend to exhibit bigger swings, and are therefore more tempting to try and time the entry / exit. So, the first thing you need to do is make an honest assessment of your temperament and ability to manage more risk. I’m no trader and I know it, but I do have the stomach for volatility for part of my portfolio.

Scale in / Scale out: The simplest way to buy something volatile is a little at a time. Dollar cost averaging is probably the most effective way to do this. Buy a little every week, every month, or every quarter until you build your position into the size you want. As you get better at this you will learn to add a little more in months when the asset is cheap, and a little less when it is more expensive. Looking back at the chart above, it’s clear that the panic of March 2020 was a golden opportunity to acquire risk assets, but it takes some guts to be buying when everyone else is selling. That said, buying the asset is generally easier than selling it, and you don’t make money until you sell! Waiting for that perfect top is a recipe for disaster for all but the best market-timers. You need to set yourself a target price, and be prepared to adjust it if conditions change. Once you reach your target, sell half. If you think it might have more to run, don’t get too carried away. Average back out of the asset little by little, the same way you got in. You may end up feeling like you left some money on the table, but that money doesn’t exist if you go over the precipice and tumble down the other side.

If the asset is traded on an open market, learn how to set a stop loss. If it’s trading above your target price and you have already sold half, you can set the stop loss at your target price to make sure you get out if the market takes a turn.

All of this sounds great in practice, but I have personally screwed up trying to time markets more often than I have got it right. This is why position size is important. If you are in something volatile like bitcoin, which frequently dumps 50% just when you think it’s going to the moon, you are going to get it wrong sometimes. You shouldn’t have half your net worth in there! I would also say that you should be invested in assets that, although they may be hot at the moment, you don’t mind holding for the next 10 years. It takes a lot of pressure off if you get stuck in something you understand and believe in during a bear market.

Cutting your losers quickly is good advice, but many people struggle with it as they get attached to the trade and don’t want to lose money. If it’s an asset you believe has great long term prospects, then you can ride out a few bumps in the road, but if the fundamentals change and you realise you were wrong, it’s time to take the hit. Psychologically, people are conditioned to try to be right all the time, but it simply isn’t possible in investing. Accept that you will be wrong sometimes and move on.

Experience is, of course, the best teacher. Keep your positions small enough that you can learn from your mistakes without blowing up your balance sheet. Keep an eye on what smart people are doing, but make your own assessment before entering something risky. One thing you can be sure of: taking a little risk helps you to get to know yourself better!

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

Diversification the Ray Dalio Way

I recently listened to this excellent podcast with investor Ray Dalio and it once again struck me how, out of all the “investment gurus”, Dalio really preaches simple, actionable investing that us regular people can easily understand and implement.

Dalio has just published a new book, which I haven’t read yet, but contains some eye-opening assessments of the decline of the United States, (30% probability of civil war in the next 10 years) and the rise of China. However, it’s the part covering how to invest in this turbulent environment that really caught my attention. Dalio sees the world economy approaching the end of a major cycle that could have dramatic repercussions for risk assets.

Here are some of the key points from the interview:

  • Don’t judge your wealth in nominal terms – i.e. how many dollars or yen you have. Judge it in terms of buying power. The ballooning of central bank debt has pumped up risk assets so people are feeling rich at the moment. However in real terms, inflation is eating away at your wealth.
  • Cash and bonds are a terrible investment in this inflationary environment. Both have negative real returns now, when measured against inflation.
  • Diversification is key. A diversified portfolio of assets should include inflation indexed bonds, stocks, and gold. Take a look at Dalio’s All Weather allocation to understand what a diversified portfolio should look like in an inflationary environment.
  • Don’t try to time the market yourself – that’s an extremely competitive game that even the pros struggle with.
  • Look for balance in your portfolio and make sure that once a year you rebalance back to your original weighting, effectively selling a portion of the assets that went up and investing them into the parts that went down.
  • Dalio is neither a raging bull or bear on Bitcoin and digital assets. He is impressed that Bitcoin has stayed around this long and been adopted so widely, and that means that some of the initial risks of hacking or replacement by a better asset have diminished. However there are risks that money in Bitcoin could flow to something else, and of course regulatory issues as the threat of a better (non-inflationary) currency is a perceived as a risk by governments who have outlawed gold and silver in the past. In all he says an allocation of 1-2% of your total portfolio to Bitcoin is about right.
  • Dalio also makes a great observation on the value of stock indexes, whereby all companies die at some point, but the index is refreshed as the old companies exit and new ones come in, so you don’t have to have your finger on the pulse continually. Simply buy the index and relax.

Just picking up on an important point here: Dalio talks about the negative returns on traditional government bonds, and suggests investing in inflation indexed bonds instead. These are often referred to as TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities) and seeing as some people may not know what they are here is the Investopedia definition. You are going to struggle to find these in a Japan-based account, but if you have a US account then the TIP ETF is a great way to get exposure. ITPS works for European accounts.

From my experience, I find that people who organise their own investments are often under-diversified. When you boil it down they are largely invested in global / US stock ETFs which all have a high concentration in the same major companies (mostly big tech). In the good times this allocation will perform perfectly well, but there is little protection there when markets take a turn for the worse. So if you are conducting your annual portfolio review as 2022 gets going, it would be a good time to consider if you are really properly diversified.

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

Interview: Japan Stock Investing With @CacheThatCheque

And so a New Year beckons. You have made your resolutions, started your iDeCo, opened your NISA and brokerage account, maybe got an overseas account too. What next? What should you actually be investing in? I interviewed stock investor @CacheThatCheque and he kindly provided some insights into how he chooses and organises his investments. I hope you find it useful!

Please tell us a little about yourself. How did you come to be in Japan and what got you started with investing? A little about myself – I am half Japanese, half American, but I grew up totally in the US in an area where there were few other Japanese people around. You could basically count the number of Japanese people living in my area on one hand. Eventually, I decided to move here to Japan to get closer to my roots, and now some 10 years later, I’m still here. While there are pro’s and con’s to living here like with anywhere else, my family and career that I’ve established here mean that I’m here now for good. As for investing – I started out perhaps a bit late. I bought my first stocks when I was 30 years old. My main reason for getting started was rather simple: I decided I wanted to have a way to grow my money and retire in the future. I also got interested in the idea of FIRE- achieving financial independence through investing so that I could either retire early or only pursue the type of work that I enjoy doing on my own terms. The more I read about FIRE, the more I became interested in investing and learning more about it. I really like the idea of being financially independent. I’m in my mid to late 30’s now, so while I wish I had started investing earlier, the best time to start investing is still always now rather than never at all.

What do you think about the current investment climate in Japan? The investing climate in Japan to me is quite interesting. Very few people in Japan actually invest, and when I first started investing while living here in Japan, I talked to many people around me about it, and they all thought I was crazy or eccentric. But since I’ve started investing, many of the same people around me that thought I was crazy for getting started with investing have since started investing themselves. While many people in Japan have an image of investing being dangerous or risky, there has also been an uptick in the retail investing culture here in Japan. More people have opened up brokerage accounts in Japan for the first time in the past few years, and TV coverage about Japan’s stock market and its many different tax advantaged investment products has increased. While many people here still don’t invest, it’s interesting to see how more people around me (whom I personally know) have gotten started with investing in recent years. I have been able to see the change and growth, which is exciting. One of my favorite Japanese celebrity retail investors is Kiritani-san, who is known for having built a small fortune from investing in Japanese stocks that hand out gifts to shareholders. While he’s funny and sort of crazy and wacky, he’s also sort of an inspiration for mom and pop investors like myself. It’s always great to see him talking about Japan’s stock market whenever he’s on TV.

Kiritani-san and his trusty mamachari

How do you organise your investments? At the moment, I organize my investments into different streams – passive US and international index funds (50%) and individual Japanese stocks (50%). This may not be the best way to do things, but it’s a reflection of how I got started out with investing. When I first got started, I opened an account with Interactive Brokers and bought only total market US index funds – simple and boring. I did this for several years until I got more interested in the idea of buying up individual stocks. When I started looking at buying up individual stocks, I then ended up getting really interested in the idea of buying individual Japanese stocks. I was really attracted by the low valuations of many individual Japanese stocks and how so many pay out really high dividend yields. While I also pursue a passive index investing strategy, I also got really into dividend investing the more I read about it, and when I found out how cheap so many reliably earning Japanese companies were, it seemed like a natural fit to make a portfolio made of ½ Japanese dividend paying stocks. I like the idea of getting regular dividend payments from companies I own, and it’s an important part of my goal in the future to one day achieve financial independence either completely or partly through solid dividend paying companies.

Do you have a regular investing routine? I invest regularly in the sense that I contribute every month into various index funds. I buy total stock market index ETFs every few months. I also manage family tax advantaged mutual fund accounts for my wife (ideco and tsumitate nisa) where money is contributed every month automatically. I allow the dividends I get from my Japanese companies to accumulate every few months where I then reinvest them into more dividend paying companies. Sometimes I buy more shares of the same companies I own but other times I add new positions into other companies that I am interested in. At the moment, I have about 30 different Japanese dividend paying companies in my portfolio.

What is your investment philosophy? My investing philosophy (if you can call it that) is basically a mix and blend of Boglehead investing, dividend growth investing, and value investing. Every month I buy index funds automatically regardless of whether the market is up or down. My index funds accounts are 100% passive. The price movements of my index funds day to day isn’t so important to me because they will only be relevant to me in 20-30 years when I decide to retire. My other part of my investing strategy is a combination of dividend growth investing and value. For this part of my investing strategy, I also see it as simple and long term oriented. As much as possible I want to buy shares of dividend paying companies at the best price possible. My goal is to buy up as many quality companies at cheap prices. For me, Japan happens to be one of the best places for this type of strategy. So many quality companies in Japan are at such deflated prices, it’s really astounding. My personal favorite sweet spot: a company with a single digit price earning ratio at half its book value paying out a 3-5% dividend yield – amazing how a search of a Japanese companies can bring up dozens of such companies that have nothing really wrong with them (aside from being unloved and unwanted because they are Japanese companies). While many detractors will say that buying up such companies is meaningless if their share prices hardly move, for this part of my investing strategy I am concerned only with the dividend payouts. My basic feeling on this is that if I lock in the basement price of a quality company already paying out a 3-5% dividend yield, I can just sit back and wait, while enjoying a good return through dividends while benefitting from any good potential upside while limiting my downside. I also think that if you’re an investor in Japan who can speak the language, it’s a major niche in your favor if you can read and learn about the Japanese stock market and all the quality companies that exist here that those outside of Japan who can’t speak the language don’t have access to.

How do you pick the actual investments? For my Japanese stock picking part of my portfolio, it’s almost like a shopping and bargain hunting experience for me that I enjoy doing. There are over 3,000 stocks in the Japanese market so there is no shortage of good deals out there. There are some good Japanese screeners like Buffett code that are useful that I recommend. Basically, while Japan has many quality large caps, the Japan small cap space is the most interesting. There are so many companies here that no one has ever heard of with net cash, zero debt, family controlled, paying more attention to shareholder value raising their dividends. Those are the stocks I am always looking to add more of to my portfolio. Stock screeners, Japanese blogs, youtube, and twitter are all ways I try to keep myself on the hunt for good companies to add to my portfolio.

What is a stock or stocks that you are really excited about now? I’ve posted about my portfolio before on twitter, but stocks that I really like are Japan’s many different trading companies – large, mid, and small cap. They’re often very old and established companies used to brokering deals and relationships with customers all over the world in all kinds of niche fields. They’re always very cash flow positive and also run many other different businesses as well, so they’re very diversified.

Do you hold any stocks that you will never sell? In principle, whenever I buy a stock I do so with the idea that I will never sell it. While I sell out of stocks sometimes for various reasons, I try to keep true to my rule.

I know you as a stock investor, but do you also invest in other asset classes? I only invest in stocks and some ETFs that have allocations to bonds. I don’t own any crypto. As there are people much smarter than me out there that have very contradictory views on crypto (“It’s rat poison! “crypto is the future!”) I’ve stayed away from crypto completely as an investing class. The way I see it, I can still reach my goal of achieving financial independence regardless of whether or not I ever buy any crypto or something I do not understand well.

Could you tell us about an investing mistake you have made, and what you learned from it? I think everyone makes mistakes in investing at some point. For me, while it’s not a major mistake perhaps, I used to make the mistake of checking my accounts constantly when I first started out with investing, which would lead to temptations to sell out of positions whenever they would dip in the market. Nowadays, I rarely check my accounts and feel content to know that there’s no need to do so when you’re confident and secure that you own many good companies for long term.

What basic advice do you have for people who are looking to invest more in Japan? Japan is a good market for value investors, but it’s also a peculiar market that has historically paid little attention to shareholders. While things are changing, I think investing in Japan still requires a lot of patience.

Anything else you would like to add? If you’re new to investing, it’s never too late to start. One obstacle to investing if you live here in Japan, though, is the added barrier and suspicion of investing in the stock market as something risky. There’s also the few number of other people around you who have any investments of any kind (aside from idle cash sitting in their bank accounts) who will make you feel crazy for trying to start. The irony of the risk averse nature of many Japanese though is how many don’t realize how many companies in Japan are very low risk to invest in because of their total lack of debt and solid balance sheets. It’s also interesting to me of how unaware many Japanese people are that their government is already using their tax dollars to invest in the stock market through its public pension fund (GPIF) and central bank buying (BOJ ETF buying). My feeling on this is that if the government is using public money to invest in the stock market, you may as well also invest for yourself as well. In Japan, especially, where many people can’t expect much in the way of major pay raises, investing in the stock market seems like the ideal way to grow your money for long term.

Where can people find you to follow your work? I don’t keep a blog or substack. I have a day job and family that keep me plenty busy, but if you want to follow my ramblings and thoughts on Japan and its market you can follow me at my twitter handle: @CacheThatCheque

There’s lots of detail in here that I’m sure readers will find useful. If you have any questions, please post in the comments or ask away on Twitter.

Thanks again to @CacheThatCheque and here’s wishing everybody all the best for 2022!

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

2022 Investment Outlook

Wow, year two of the great covid saga is almost over! It may not feel like it, but from an investment perspective, we are coming to the end of one of the easiest years in recent history. How is your portfolio doing? The odds are it’s looking pretty good so far. This has been the kind of market where we all look like pros.

So can we expect more of the same in 2022? You are probably already getting the feeling that it’s not going to be that simple, and that has a lot to do with Mr. Powell, pictured above. There are a lot of tough jobs in this world, but trying to fight inflation during a pandemic, without crashing a stock market that you inflated, certainly has the difficulty level set to Precarious. Volatility is coming back and you better have a plan to deal with it.

Stocks: So how well have stocks actually done? Well if you look at the indices, everything looks fine: The S&P 500 is up some 26% year to date, with the NASDAQ up 17%. Bull market! The picture gets somewhat muddled though when you realise that 45% of the components of the S&P 500 are below their 50 day moving average, and 65% of NASDAQ components are below their 200 day moving average. What does that mean? Well a big chunk of the US stock market is actually in bear market territory. What’s holding up the average is the massive outperformance of big tech: Apple, Alphabet (Google) Amazon, Meta (Facebook), Microsoft, and Netflix literally are the bull market!

All this has happened in an environment nourished by the steady drip of liquidity in the form of zero interest rates and quantitative easing from Jerome Powell’s Federal Reserve.

This from a recent Zerohedge post: “So I submit the notion of a raging bull market is a myth. Indices propelled to constant new highs by still flowing central bank liquidity increasingly held together by a few stocks.”

No wonder things got choppy around the time of the FOMC meeting this week…

Bonds: The problem here is, of course, the emergence of inflation, which the Fed originally tried to write off as “transitory”, but have now decided they need to act on. That means no more drip drip, and interest rates must rise. Inflation is not good news for bonds, as it eats away at the purchasing power of the bond’s future cash flows. Why buy today’s issue when tomorrow’s will come with a higher yield? Bond yields go up = bond prices go down.

Commodities: Assuming inflation is here to stay for a while, what should go up is the price of “stuff”. There’s a reason for that 5% of your portfolio that’s been sitting in gold doing not very much all year. Just be aware that if there’s a panic à la March 2020, everything gets sold off initially, including the shiny metals. Oil is going to continue to be interesting next year if the scourge of Omicron doesn’t crush the reopening trade…

Crypto: It’s been one year since my Bitcoin: It’s About to get Loud post. Yes, I am now patting myself on the back for calling the most obvious bull market of all – the one that comes every four years! Crypto is never easy though, especially for newcomers. We have seen (I think) seven or maybe eight pullbacks of over 30% this year alone. We have been to an all time high of $69k and are now back at $46k with the fear and greed index indicating extreme fear. Meanwhile on Layer 1, Ethereum has outperformed Bitcoin and Avalanche and Solana have done crazy multiples. (ETH up about 420%, AVAX up 3,000%, SOL up 11,000%!) Have we seen the top of the mountain and we are already on the way down the other side, or is there one final push to the summit to come?

Dude, you mentioned having a plan?

A client of mine, who is a former economist once said to me: “Right or wrong, I always saw it as my job to have an opinion.” That comment has stuck with me, as I think it applies to all investors. You can’t always be right, but you should have a view, test it rigorously, and be prepared to change it if you find evidence you are wrong. So for what it’s worth, here’s my view for 2022:

The Fed, and other Central Banks are being forced to deal with inflation, but they have openly admitted that they are equally, if not more concerned, with not crashing the stock market. The words “rock” and “hard place” spring immediately to mind. So they taper now and plan to stop bond purchases by March. The market does not like this and corrects strongly, which basically means that those big tech stocks sell off dramatically. Then, central banks have to backtrack and slow or end the taper, and maybe rethink those rate hikes planned for later in the year. When the drip is turned back on, the market bounces back.

You get the idea.

How you plan for this depends on your investing style:

If you have a diversified asset allocation and your plan is to do nothing at all and ride it out, maybe continue dollar cost averaging every month: Congratulations! You are dismissed from class and free to go and play!

If you are not one of these people then please take note – staying sane is actually an option here. However, if you insist on trying to trade this, it is probably past time to start getting a little more defensive and raise some cash to deploy when things get rough. I would, however, be tempted to entertain the possibility that Omicron is also a little roller coaster like by nature, and the initial whoosh into the sky will return to earth equally quickly. This could precede the discovery in late Q1 that inflation actually was somewhat transitory, and caused mainly by supply chain disruption, and therefore the need to deal with it falls away. So be cautious, but it’s perhaps not time to lock yourself in the bunker.

Is the crypto bull market over? Crypto is more correlated to stocks than many crypto people like to think, so if anything is going to slay the bull it could be a dramatic stock market correction. That said, the level of adoption, or network effect, has increased significantly this year, and includes a good deal of institutional money. If your plan, like mine, was to sell the cycle top at $100k+ and then buy back in the bear market, it may be time for re-evaluation. I’m slowly becoming more open to the idea that the four year cycle could be smoothing out and, despite frequent mini crashes, we may not see a 2017 style blow off top followed by a grinding two year bear market. Don’t hold me to that, but a simple way to play it is to have a cold storage allocation that you hold longer term, and a tradable allocation that you look to sell at Extreme Greed and buy back at Extreme Fear, rinse and repeat.

However things play out, it is unlikely to be smooth sailing. So I wish you a peaceful holiday season. Here’s hoping Japan does a better job of holding off Omicron than my home country is doing so far…

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

There Goes The Metaverse!

The above tweet comes from a remarkable thread by a market veteran who is trying to get his head around what happened in financial markets in the month of October 2021. Amid fears of inflation and a flurry of tech earnings reports, Tesla stock went off to the races, whilst Mark Zuckerberg renamed Facebook and launched his foray into the metaverse. Meanwhile in crypto, meme-based dog coins were off the leash and a virtual world currency suddenly woke up and went parabolic. All while the VIX, the US stock market’s “fear index” languished by the pool sipping cocktails.

It’s enough to make anybody’s head spin, but it’s particularly confusing for serious traders and investors who dare to try and apply fundamental research to markets gone wild. In another fascinating thread, Zhu Su of Three Arrows Capital attempts to explain why traditional Discounted Cash Flow valuation method no longer applies in a market driven by network effects.

It always amazes me how many Tesla haters are out there, continually predicting the company’s downfall, whilst missing out on the asymmetric returns it provides. Some masochists even short the stock, enduring months and years of pain in the hope of the big payoff. The same thing happens with crypto. These people will forgo incredible returns so they can one day turn around and say “I told you so” when the asset comes crashing back to earth.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing misguided in buying good quality companies when they are on sale and holding them for the long term. This strategy has made Warren Buffet a fortune, but he is very, very good at it and has massive capital to invest when he identifies his target.

Sorry to drop yet another thread on you, but this one from Raoul Pal also caught my eye over the weekend. His take is that the market is now being driven by millennial investors, who have not been blessed by the benign conditions their parents came of age in, and are throwing caution to the wind because it’s the only way they are ever going to make it. They are not interested in diversification and modern portfolio theory as they know they will never be able to retire with a sensible investment strategy. The only way they are going to get rich is if they concentrate their bets in trades with the biggest possible payoff. They are going all in on meme stocks, crypto, NFTs, and soon the metaverse, and, to their parent’s disbelief, they might just make it!

Now this is a financial planning blog, or at least it started off as one. I’m not going to tell you to sell off your diversified portfolio and your blue chip dividend stocks and bet it all on electric cars and dog coins, but it’s hard to deny that a shift is in progress and we won’t be able to navigate it with old thinking. Yes, you need to have an emergency cash reserve and an appropriate amount of insurance. You need to have a pension or long term savings vehicle that averages into stocks in the early years and then diversifies over time as the numbers grow bigger. Yes, you need a core investment portfolio of cash, bonds, equities, property, commodities and alternatives that is rebalanced annually. And yes, you need to keep some powder dry for when it all comes crashing down, because it will do that once in a while. But it would be a mistake to ignore the Exponential Age that is upon us, even if you have no intention of ever setting foot (metaphorically) in a virtual world.

I have talked about core / satellite investing previously and I believe it still applies. It’s just that the satellite part of the allocation suddenly got very interesting. Here are some things you might want to read up on:

The Metaverse – first coined in Neal Stephenson’s novel “Snow Crash”, and confirmed last week as the big thing on Mr. Zuckerberg’s mind, the metaverse will be more than just a virtual reality space where people interact via dorky avatars. As they develop, virtual worlds will intersect work, socialising, gaming, entertainment, commerce, and all manner of human interaction. You can already own land in the Metaverse and set up shop there. These virtual worlds are likely to be split between those run by big corporations, such as Meta (Facebook), and decentralised versions run democratically as a community. For a glimpse at where we are heading, take a look at Decentraland.

The currency of the metaverse is going to be crypto and participation will happen through social tokens and NFTs. It’s no coincidence that Decentraland’s Mana token went vertical right after the Facebook announcement. Sh*t just got meta!

Want to show off your wealth in the metaverse? NFTs are how you flex. Read this post (and every other post) by Arthur Hayes for more on that. Also check out this next-level NFT art gallery.

Metcalfe’s Law, or what is a network effect and why should I care? Wikipedia does a pretty good job of explaining how the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system. This no longer only applies to telecom or computer systems. The internet is a network, social media is a network. Visa and Matercard are networks and so are Bitcoin and Ethereum. If the user base grows, the value increases. You don’t have to like it, but good luck shorting it!

So this is all great, but what do you do with it? Well, unless you are planning on betting the ranch on the metaverse, you play it as a satellite holding. If you prefer hiking outdoors to virtual worlds I’m with you, but you don’t have to ignore what is going on. Crypto and social tokens are the obvious entry point, as is owning stock in the corporate metaverse companies. If you want to be more involved then other places you can start are: The Sandbox Game, Cryptovoxels, and Wilder World.

There will be many more investment opportunities if you keep your eye on the space. Maybe mad October isn’t the beginning of the end, but just an extension of the new normal. The metaverse is coming – be there or be square!

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

The Inflation vs. Deflation Debate

Inflation has been on a lot of investor’s minds recently. Every time the Federal Reserve’s Jay Powell speaks he us under intense pressure to clarify his expectations for inflation, and how the US central bank would react to it. Amidst the ongoing re-opening of America, and indeed much of the world, inflation seems to be the one thing that could derail the stock market. The massive stimulus following the 2008 Global Financial Crisis was just in the process of being tapered when Covid-19 hit, and since then we have seen some $10 trillion in government stimulus globally. That’s already triple the total stimulus for the 2008-2009 recession. When national debts and the supply of money are increased at this rate, there is always going to be an effect on the value of money somewhere down the line.

Inflation can be defined as the rise in the cost of goods and services over time, but a better way to understand it is the decline of purchasing power of a given currency over time. Simply put, the same money buys you less and less.

I came across this site, which is a great tool for understanding inflation. Take a look at the Japan Inflation Calculator and you can clearly see how brutal the effect of inflation has been on purchasing power here. 1 yen today is only worth 19% of a yen 60 years ago. And that is in a county that has been battling deflation for the last 30 years…

Japan’s example is a precursor to the ongoing debate as to whether the current scenario is inflationary or deflationary.

I recommend reading this excellent thread by Raoul Pal. Here’s an excerpt:

“In fact with global debts of all forms between $400 trillion net and $1.2 quadrillion gross – the collateral (assets) can NOT be allowed to fall or the system is wiped out. and so the merry game of systematic bailout MUST continue….”

What Raoul describes here will sound familiar to anyone who has been in Japan for a long time: interest rates held at zero and unable to rise, never-ending stimulus, wages stagnant. Official inflation is somehow measured at zero, but every year your money buys you less. What investors in many parts of Europe are facing is not only the devaluation of the currency, but also negative interest rates. Yes, for amounts over €100,000 depositors are paying up to 0.5% per year to keep their money in the bank. Imagine if that was implemented in Japan!

Raoul’s conclusion is that regardless of whether you sit in the inflation or deflation camp, the result is the same: the value of money is falling.

So where does that leave us? If we are working hard, earning as much as possible and trying to plan for our future, what should we be doing?

First of all, if your money is in cash, you are losing purchasing power year on year. If you want to escape this and maintain the value of your hard-earned money you need to invest. I don’t know any other way around this problem, other than making more money, which is great if you have a way to do so.

Invest wisely. Bonds might be a one year trade but over 5 years you WILL lose. Most equities just allow you to stand still. Tech does better. Crypto much better. Real Estate is a stand still too (except super limited supply). The rarer the asset, the more it rises.

I don’t disagree with Raoul’s quote above, however for a typical investor allocating to just crypto and tech stocks involves taking on way too much risk. Regardless of how each asset will perform over the next 5 years, diversification is the only way to protect yourself, whilst staying invested. I have covered the basics in numerous other posts: understand your risk profile, figure out your base currency, study up on asset allocation (also here), and, most importantly, take action! Sitting in cash is not a safe strategy over the longer term.

(This post on Japan inflation may be useful too)

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

New NISA – Coming in 2024

I had been wondering for some time if there may be some changes coming for NISA after the current scheduled end date of 2023. The good news is that changes are indeed coming, but it is nothing too severe.

You may remember that NISA is the Japan Individual Savings account, designed to encourage Japanese investors to invest in the stock market. Capital gains and dividends from NISA are exempt from the 20% tax over the investment period. It has actually been pretty successful with around 14 million people using the system across the three account types. (General, Tsumitate and Junior NISA) Of those, approximately 11.75 million people have invested some ¥17.9 trillion into the General NISA system.

So what is going to change? Well the Junior NISA is being discontinued in 2023, and the Tsumitate NISA will be extended as is until 2042, so the main changes come in the General NISA account:

1. General NISA is being extended for 5 years from 2024 to 2028.

2. Contributions will be split into 2 tiers:

The first tier is for up to ¥200,000 per year and this amount must be invested in “Stable Investments” – what is meant by this is collective investments such as funds and ETFs that have been approved by the Financial Services Agency. This is to encourage diversification and sensible investment. There are currently 184 funds and ETFs that have been approved for this.

In Tier 2 you can invest up to ¥1,020,000 per year. There are fewer restrictions on this tier so you can buy funds, ETFs and individual stocks. It looks like there will be some restrictions on highly leveraged funds, but you can pretty much expect to be able to access the same assets as you can now in General NISA.

This means the total investable per year has increased by ¥20,000 to ¥1,220,000 yen. It looks like you have to fill up the Tier 1 ¥200,000 before you can invest in Tier 2 assets.

3. If you started your NISA after 2019, you will be able to rollover the holdings in your General NISA to the New NISA. NISA started before 2019 will not be eligible for rollover.

It also seems that Tier 1 assets from New NISA will be eligible to be rolled over to Tsumitate NISA after the five year investment period. However you will only be able to rollover the book cost, the amount you invested rather than the actual value of these holdings. So if you invest ¥200,000 and it goes up to ¥400,000, you can only roll over ¥200,000 yen.

I have pieced this information together from a couple of different articles, which are in Japanese. I’m pretty confident I have the main facts correct, but there are probably a few minor details that I haven’t fully understood yet. Will update if I think I missed anything. For now, rest assured that NISA will still be available as an investment option to you from 2024 onwards!

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

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