A Personal Finance and Investment Arm of The Business Times


Why lose money investing?: Misconceptions about risk?

Why lose money investing?

Why is it that most people lose money investing?

Before I get to answering this question – how many people make or lose money investing?

Statistics on profits and losses?

Well, to the best of my knowledge, there are no statistics on this.

However, we used to have the CPF Investment Scheme (CPFIS) cumulative profits and losses’ statistics up till the 11th year, after the CPFIS started in 1993.

It was 75 per cent of investors did not beat the 2.5 per cent return on the Ordinary Account after the 11 years. For Singapore stock investors, the average loss was about 35 per cent, after the 11 years.

Lower risk assets?

To get back to answering the original question –  Why is it that most people lose money investing? – Let me start by asking – Is there such a thing as lower risk in the different asset classes – equities, bonds, cash, commodities, property, etc?

Of course there is – after all isn’t this what every textbook and what you read in the media always tell you?

So, imagine you walk into a financial institution and you say that you want a lower risk investment – you may likely be shown the merits of investing in bonds, because they are of lower risk.

Bonds are lower risk?

Before you decide to accept the conventional notion that bonds are “lower risk” – read the following:

Real loss of 91% in 35 years?

According to the article “Events in America show that no asset is copper-bottomed“ (The Economist, Oct 13)

- “From the point of view of a creditor, however, the ability of a government to print money is of little comfort if the result is higher inflation (for domestic investors) or currency depreciation (for foreign ones). Investors who bought Treasury bonds in 1946, when yields were around current levels, did not suffer a formal default. But over the following 35 years they lost money in real terms at a rate of 2% a year. The cumulative real loss was 91%. By that standard, Greek creditors, who recently suffered a 50% loss via default, were lucky.”

Bonds may be risky too?

After reading the above, you may be saying to yourself – now how come nobody ever told me about the risks of investing in bonds? – other than the fact that when a bond defaults, it may mean the total loss of your bond investment – but the entire or geographical or sectoral bonds may be quite risky too?

How to reduce risk?

So, how then do we reduce risk? Well, arguably, the only way is by diversification by having different asset classes, geographical, sectoral, active/index fund managers’ diversification, etc.

In other words – for example – a globally diversified portfolio of about 10 funds of approximately 30 per cent equities (developed, emerging markets, region, country, sector, big cap/small cap, etc), 30 per cent bonds (global, regional, emerging markets, etc), 20 per cent commodities, 20 per cent property (global).

In this connection, I understand that in the United States, if you are a trustee or an endowment fund, etc – you are required to have at least 20 per cent in equities – to “reduce risk”. This is also evident in the investment fiduciary guidelines of the Centre for Fiduciary Studies.

Always ask this question before you invest?

Finally, don’t forget to ask no matter what you are considering to invest in – What is the worse that can happen? What is the worse historically that has happened?

Statistics on clients’ accounts?

By the way, there was a conference whereby I was on a panel with regulators from different countries – and I asked “I believe most financial institutions may have the data and statistics as to how many and what percentage of their clients have made or lost money, and by how much over different time periods – Why don’t they disclose this – It may help investors to make decisions?

- The answer basically from the panelists was – then it would be a great marketing opportunity for the first financial institution to do that!

From this answer – perhaps give us a clue as to what the time-tested advice in buying anything may have always been – ask those you trust to recommend who or what to buy from – because there may arguably be no better guide than past experience on advice, service and performance.

Asking the wrong questions?

Having said the above – the irony in my view as to the most common reason why people lose money investing is … at every forum, meeting or interview -people are always focusing their questions on the returns – Which is the best investment? When is the best time to invest? etc, etc.

The truth is … nobody knows … we are all making guesses probably all the time!

So, diversify, diversify, diversify … and sell those that have gone up the most when you need money, or at regular intervals such as when you are in retirement. And also avoid investment vehicles or products that are not regulated – remember the millions that people have lost investing in “gold guarantees”, multi-level marketing (MLM), etc, that turned out to be scams.

Beware – whatever contract you have is only as good as if you are able to find or seek legal redress from the the company that gave you the  contract for your investment in the first place!

Robin Han
Leong Sze Hian

Dr Leong Sze Hian is the Past President of the Society of Financial Service Professionals, an alumnus of Harvard University, has authored 4 books, quoted over 1500 times in the media , has been host of a money radio show, a daily newspaper column, Wharton Fellow, SEACeM Fellow, acting managing editor and columnist for theonlinecitizen, columnist for Malaysiakini, a Member on the CIFA International Advisory Board, executive  producer of the movie Ilo Ilo (8 international awards), treasurer of Maruah, and invited to speak more than 100 times in more than 25 countries on 5 continents. He has served as Honorary Consul of Jamaica and founding advisor to the Financial Planning Associations of Brunei and Indonesia. He has 3 Masters, 2 Bachelors degrees and 13 professional  qualifications.