Property investment – the value of data over opinions

Lightstone have a trick up their sleeves. Their raison d’être is collecting, analysing, understanding and packaging data for themselves and others to use to understand past, current and future property valuations.

Their housing price index is more robust (and more independent) than those of the banks based off their own data and target markets. Rather than consider only the average price of houses sold in that particular month (which is a function of house price growth / decline but also how the type, condition, size and location of the houses sold that month differ from the prior month and year) they consider repeat sales where the same property has been bought and sold more than once.

This data is combined or “chain-linked” to provide a continuous measure of house price inflation over time.

House Price Inflation 2010
House Price Inflation 2010 source: lightstone.co.za

The result of all of this data, best-in-class methodology and analysis? When Lightstone says “opportunities abound in local market” I actually listen. Since their business model is to sell information, I’m more likely to trust what they say.

Most decisions are made without all the information

Tyler Reed blogs about entrepreneurs having to make decisions with limited information.

It’s almost all unknown

I don’t disagree.  It’s just that almost every meaningful decision ever made is made without all the information.

Unknowns can be categorised a hundred different ways. One way is to think about:

  1. Unknown past information
  2. Uncertainty around the current situation or position
  3. Unknown future outcomes

Even a game like chess, where the past history of the game is easily known by good players, the current position is clearly visible and all the possible moves are knowable, it is not possible have all the information about how your opponent will react to your move.

How to deal with decision making under uncertainty – part 1

Tyler suggests that gut-based decision making can be effective much of the time – and it can. It there genuinely is no time for anything more than an instinctive reaction, you probably are best going with your gut.

Even if you have plenty of time, listening to your guy to formulate an idea is a great idea. Insight comes partly from experience and the reinforced neural pathways of our learning brain. If you stop with the gut though, you are missing out. There is a tremendous amount of research showing how ridiculously badly our instincts perform in many areas, particularly those relating to uncertainty and complexity! Continue reading “Most decisions are made without all the information”

CPI at 3.7% for July 2010

From Stats SA

The headline inflation rate in July 2010 (i.e. the Consumer Price Index for all urban areas in July 2010 compared with that at July 2009) was 3,7%

The official inflation rate (i.e. the percentage change in the CPI for all urban areas in July 2010 compared with that in July 2009) was 3,7% at July 2010. This rate was 0,5 of a percentage point lower than the corresponding annual rate of 4,2% in June 2010 (i.e. the Consumer Price Index for all urban areas in June 2010 compared with that in June 2009).

From June 2010 to July 2010 the Consumer Price Index for all urban increased by 0,6%

CPI Headline July 2010 = 3,7%

So this is close to the bottom of our 3% to 6% inflation targeting range. Economic growth is struggling, unemployment is high, but we haven’t reduced interest rates? Something here is a little odd.

I’ll put another $100 in Kiva, to be “microlent” to businesses and people across the world, if the next monetary policy committee meeting doesn’t cut interest rates.

More on cars and colour

In researching my previous post on accurately measuring the risks associated with vehicle crimes based  on colour, I stumbled across another colour related risk measure.

Red cars, supposedly, attract more than their fair share of traffic fines.

Turns out this is incorrect.  Snopes.com has (as usual) an excellent article on red cars, including references to research showing red cars are not more likely to be fined than other vehicles. Unfortunately, the underlying research isn’t available online (as far as I could find).

Interconnecting confusion

Interconnect fees and the reasons for their reduction are possibly the most misunderstood “big” news story over the last twelve months.

The hype and hoopla around this topic is fueled by our feelings as consumers of being charged too much big big monopoly companies. So I should start by saying that I’m not saying that we are paying too much. I’m not saying that because I don’t know enough about the costs of providing cellular services in South Africa. Maybe we are, maybe we’re not. Also, I’m not saying there aren’t monopolistic practices in the market – again I simply don’t know. Given the other stories torn from inside companies by the sharp teeth and salivating jaws of the Competition Commission, it’s understandable that many suspect consumer-unfriendly play by most large South African companies, particularly those in industries with a small number of players.

What I am saying is that most of what you read in the news about interconnect is horribly misguided.

The biggest misconception is that interconnect fees are an expense for cellular providers, and that the removal of this expense would allow them to reduce tariffs to consumers. Well, it is an expense, but it is also a source of revenue. Every time one company pays an interconnect fee, another company is receiving it.

Interconnect does not change the total amount of profit within the cellular industry. It may redistribute it a little, and there may be negative medium term competitive implications arising from interconnect, but lower interconnect won’t automatically increase profits that could allow competitive price lowering for the benefit of consumers.

TechCentral has an interesting article: Bain warns consumers not to expect cellular price cuts.  Of course, it also include some done-to-death flawed statements (whether from Bain or inserted by the zealous staff writer) such as:

Because new players have few customers at first, most calls on their networks will be to networks of other operators. High interconnection fees make it difficult for them to enter the market.

It’s not that this statement is incorrect (it is in fact correct) it’s just that it is horribly misleading because it only presents one side of the story. I’ve reworded it to provide the stunning insight: Continue reading “Interconnecting confusion”

Wise quotes, random misapplication

Wise quotes

I stumbled across an interesting hypothesis today. It’s a few hundred years old so I expect many of you will already know it. It’s attributed to a German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhaur* who is described by the authors and editors of Wikipedia as beinng “known for his atheistic pessimism and philosophical clarity”.

All truth passes through three phases
1. It is ridiculed
2. It is violently opposed
3. It is accepted as being obvious

Now there are several unmissable examples that follow this route quite neatly:

Hijacking risk measures

Statistics are dually known as useful and misleading. Another relevant saying is that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

3 Series
Creative Commons License photo credit: star5112

CAR magazine used to have a short section covering the number of complaints received from readers separated according to car brand. The problem with that sort of analysis is that it ignores the relative number of cars from each brand on the road. The “exposure” of toyotas to problems is much higher than maseratis since there are rather more toyotas on our roads. If CAR magazine received an equal number of complaints from drivers of maseratis and toyotas, it would suggest anything but an equal likelihood of having problems from each of those brands. I obviously wasn’t sufficiently convincing when I offered to help them devise a less biased measurement criterion.

This is an example of a common problem with random events – it is important to consider what could have happened as well as what did happen when understanding the results.

In a related example, iAfrica has an interesting article on car hijackings in South Africa. They include a list of the top ten hikacked cars. The list is interesting, but difficult to interpret without knowing how many of each vehicle were hijacking AND how many were on the road, able to be hijacked. If the Maserati Gran Turismo were on the list, I would be wary of driving one! Continue reading “Hijacking risk measures”

Insured against ranting and rambling

Moneyweb has an article describing the failure of the South African insurance industry to provide insurance to the wider population, including lower income markets such as the banking sector has done.

There are some interesting points to discuss here, and I’m certainly not saying the industry could not do more. However, there are some fairly fundamental social, pyschological and technical reasons that need to be overcome first. I’ve repeated some comments on the article below. I don’t claim this to be an exhaustive list, but I suggest that it lists some more likely suspects for the causes of imperfect penetration of the insurance market.

Sorry Felicity, but this article doesn’t even get into the details and shows a lack of understanding of the drivers of the need for insurance, and the perceived need for insurance.

Life Insurance
Comparing insurance to banking is disingenuous. Transactional banking makes your life easier, now. Basic savings account can work towards short-term goals. Life insurance will always seem less pressing.

1. Savings products will not work for lower income policyholders through an insurance policy because of the assumed average tax rate of 30%. It is a good deal for welathy investors in high marginal tax brackets, but awful for poor people. This is a function of the tax system not the insurers.
2. Life insurance requires payment of a premium now for a possible future benefit to dependents. There is no way this will ever be a priority need. This is human nature. Even if policies are sold, they will be lapsed very quickly and “better” uses are found for the premiums.
3. Lower income market segments typically have greater reliance on extended family for support. Thus, the need is lower for insurance. This is typical of developing countries, and declines as wealth and education increase (along with smaller families, later first children and less support from the extended family).

4. Funeral insurance may be sold through non-traditional outlets, but it is still exactly life insurance. Just that here the need is better appreciated and understood. Therefore it sells. Or do you want insurers to sell products for which there isn’t a need. (hey, easy on the comments that they already do… I don’t think insurers are angels!)
5. Credit life is required to protect the lenders from the death of the borrower. Again, there is a clear need and this form of insurance is quite widespread. Incidentally, funeral insurance and credit life are, unfortunately, typically quite profitable business lines. This might be a better line of attack against the insurance industry.
6. Insurance in South Africa has remarkably high penetration as measured by insurance premiums as a percentage of GDP and compared to other countries. This shows the succes of the industry, and also explains the limited growth prospects. Life insurance is typically less prevalent than short-term insurance in developing economies – if the problem isn’t restricted to South Africa maybe we should look for broader reasons?

7. I know several insurers who are targeting lower income markets with mixed success. The typical complaint against insurers is that they are overly profit-seeking. If (if!) this is true, then one can’t also complain that they aren’t following up on profitable opportunities? Again, maybe the reason is broader than you’ve implied.

Short-term insurance
Several other commentors have already described valid reasons for why short-term insurance take-up is lower than might be hoped. In many countries, third party liability cover is a legal requirement to drive a vehicle, and with good reason. This is the case in Lebanon, another country where I understand a bit about the insurance industry.

Losses on equity portfolios for our short-term insurers don’t really translate to a requirement to provide insurance to new markets. Maybe it suggests a requirement for less reliance on equity bull markets for performance in good years.

Short-term insurance in South Africa would be considered competitive by most standards. If there were large, profitable, untapped markets out there (with sufficient volumes, limited fraud and low enough claims frequencies and severities to make the premiums affordable to the target market) I expect they would be aggressively pursued. The thing about third party liability cover is that it isn’t greatly a function of the value of your vehicle. That makes it relatively expensive compared with the value of a car typical of a lower income target market. Being insured against someone else’s costs, when you would have no way to pay them otherwise and therefore it would be pointless to be sued, doesn’t sound like a very likely expenditure item.

The expenses of adminstering a policy are also not related to the size of policy or the value of insured property. One can argue whether current efficiency levels are right, but that is a separate argument (and one likely to suggest job cuts…).

The propotion of South Africans with short-term insurance should also be compared against those with sufficient assets to make it sensible. Direct comparisons against the populatio as a whole are close to meaninless.

Ok, I think I have done more than enough rambling and ranting. However, let me conclude with one observation on a quote from the article:

“And the plain fact is that local insurers have done way too little to develop products that offer value for the vast majority of South Africans. This is self-evident; precious few South Africans use insurance products.”

Just saying something is a fact doesn’t make it a fact. And please don’t abuse “self-evident”. Just because one item could be a cause of something does not make it the cause, or the only cause, or the primary cause. Especially not when you have just laid out a few of the reasons I also covered as to why insurance is a hard sell.

I wonder whether I should have mentioned the bad debts on house and car loans that are stacking up based (only partially!!) on pressure to lend to households with little wealth for large deposits and strained financials?