Possible causes of lower literacy

Poor Reading Skills Have Both Physical, Environmental Causes. (20 Jul 2001).

Precis: Neurological and environmental elements may be reasons behind reading challenges of young children.

Click here for the article.

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Financial Literary/Education – its value (or lack of)

I picked up this book because of one its chapters on the suspect value of Financial Education (FE which would be used interchangeably with Financial Literacy, FL) in this piece.

The book is <Pound Foolish: Exposing the dark side of the Personal Finance Industry>. Written by Helaine Olen; published in 2012 by London based Portfolio/Penguin.

The backdrop? My own efforts here on this WordPress site to promote individual (and independent) financial research such that people can end up making informed decisions; hopefully this would save many from heartache and prevent the trauma of seeing one’s life savings go ka-poof.

With the subprime crisis of 2008, even my country was not spared. Approximately 10,000 retail investors bought more than $500 million of Lehman Brothers Minibonds. (See Singapore Infopedia, Valerie Chew, 2010) In the worse off cases, some ended with only  ‘5.6% of the amount invested’.[DBS Bank, ABN Amro, Maybank and Hong Leong Finance – all the institutions declined any further legal obligations or the blame. Hong Leong publicised its decision to stop selling similar products.]

Way back in 2003,  then Member of Parliament for Marine Parade GRC (group representation constituency),  Mrs Lim Hwee Hua had posed the following Parliamentary Question to the Deputy Prime Minister:

To ask the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, given the increasing concerns over financial agents acting on consumer’s ignorance to market investment products and financial services, whether the Government has any plans to improve the financial literacy of Singaporeans and to educate them on how to better manage their financial resources, make sound investment choices and plan for their financial future.

The local programme, MoneySENSE, was set up in the same year.

It seems nevertheless that the premise raised by Olen is generally substantiated. The most vociferous argue that only laws to shore up consumers interests would work. This extreme voice also argued that financial counselling at the point of financial decision would trump the so-called sham of FE or FL. Some surveys in the US actually highlighted the decrease of Financial Knowledge between 2007 and 2011. While in a 2012 study, 50% of Americans did not realise the impact of inflation or compound interest on their monetary assets. This in the land where the subprime crisis originated – which is quite an irony. Economist Richard Thaler opined: ‘…financial literacy is impossible…’ (see an Economist article that contains the quote).  James Bryant Quinn from the chapter stated: ‘If they (people) were interested in investing, they would have gone to Wall Street.’

I believe a middle ground is required, or a comprehensive approach is needed. From the above mentioned Economist article, through government policy:

Sweden’s system of saving for old age contains an example of what Mr Thaler means. It offers Swedes a choice of funds to invest in, but includes a well-designed low-cost default option, which has become the choice of 90% of the people.

Further, we need to educate not just at the mechanical level (which I understand from the book was the US norm before 1941 – math classes taught loans and issues for business startups – instead of the algebra and calculus they have today), but quite possibly at attitudinal level where constant consumerism is not a necessity. Buying that shoe, handbag, car does not bring lasting happiness. [To add, I follow the no-credit card principle.]

Finally, the law where the US Frank-Dodd Act is at the very least a start. I am not sure of enforceability though. By January 2016, Iceland (yes, the tiny island of 330,000 people that knocked out England in 2016’s Euro Championships), put 29 bankers in prison for causing the country’s banking crash.

The other bigger players have yet to follow suit. Simply consider the following titles:

If Iceland Can Jail Bankers For The Crash Then Why Can’t America? (24 Oct 2015). Forbes.

Iceland has jailed 26 bankers, why won’t we? (16 Nov 2015). Independent.

The United Nations (UN) – L’après guerre froide dans le monde

The traditional Sabbath is ‘…from sunset to sunset, that is, from Friday evening to Saturday evening.’ As of most general Christian traditions, it has now become Sunday.

I am rushing now to complete this piece of work. Or is it leisure? (Even though I am hardly a proponent of work life integration. Division is the key – yes – KEY.)

I have said to my former colleagues in the past, ‘God willing’. It is biblical, once one refers to the book of James from the Bible. Who knows whither comes tomorrow? (Thanks, John Bunyan for the word ‘wither’.)

人生短短几十年…

Life is so precious and fragile…but how many truly act in congruence with this, for lack of another word at this point, realisation?

Enough of the philosophical musings…

=====================================

It is now past midnight, and herein is the due date for the above book.

I will hardly waste the time left for garnering useful insights.

No particular new thoughts from the author. The UN was hampered by the Cold War and great power vetoes.

The author seems to put a positive spin on UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali who in 1992 spoke of ‘preventive diplomacy’, which in other words meant nipping conflicts in the bud.

The writing nonetheless revived memories of Gorbachev’s 1988 speech in the UN. He stated the need for cooperation in demilitarisation; human rights; and environmental management: the diametric opposite of class conflict actualised by Lenin and Stalin. One can safely quote this as an example of political liberalism in contrast to political realism. (Of course, some also use this defining moment as the end of the Cold War.) This was concretely proven in the short term at least, by the consensus during the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991).

But it is more pessimistic or ambivalent. It painted an uncertain future. The US was compared to France post World War One, a state that neglected urban infrastructure; possessed a broken and bankrupt social security system; with medical/chemical industries (overtaken by the Japanese). This is in line with Jim Rogers’ analysis of things (he cross referenced the US to the dwindling British Empire).

Who was to displace the US?

It remains to be seen… and this is despite China’s supposed invincibility.

 

 

US Supreme Court – Ingraham v. Wright (19 Apr 1977)

On the above date, Lewis F. Powell Jr. explained why corporal punishment (such as caning) does not equate to cruel and unusual punishment that is covered under the US Constitutional Eight Amendment.

The criteria for determining a reasonable punishment include: severity of the offence; age; body constitution (weak or sickly for instance); whether there are alternative types of punishment; whether the act was recurrent. (p.86)

Historically, the Eight Amendment was meant to protect criminals, and only ‘unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.’ (By inference, necessary and reasonably painful punishment is acceptable.) Further, there had been no legal precedent that the Amendment was used outside criminal cases.

Since, students were not criminals, and they still had redress to common law as well as public oversight, the application of the Eight Amendment was found once more to be invalid.

Resultantly, states were allowed to decide whether corporal punishment was allowed. Things remained at status quo, in 2010, the US House Committee on Education and Labour refused to vote on a bill to push through country level prohibition on corporal punishment. In 2011, there were 19 US states that allowed corporal punishment. (p.88)

On another note, in 1994, the Gun-Free Schools Act, set a compulsory expulsion of at least 1 year for students possessing firearms.

Reference:

David Haugen and Susan Musser (editors).(2013). Discipline and Punishment. Farmington Hills. Greenhaven Press.

Korean Peninsula – L’après guerre froide dans le monde

I am grateful that I can still read Chinese since my French is still rather basic. The above was translated by 北京 : 商务印书馆, 1996. The original by Charles Zorgbibe – ‘Lawyer and historian of international relations‘ – was put into print in 1993. I concur with the translation of the title by the publishers, this was <冷战后的世界>. What interested me was the world from the French perspective. [Interestingly, the series was named Que Sais-Je, in other words – What do  know? It mirrors the final line in French playwright Yasmina Reza’s work <God of Carnage>.]

The author held an optimistic view towards tensions on the Korean Peninsula where both Koreas (North and South) remained at war since only an armistice was signed back in 1953. I see why he had reasons to be positive. China was prodding North Korea to make peace with South Korea. The United States was planning to execute the Guam Doctrine or Nixon Doctrine to pull troops from Asia (eventually). In 1990, the then Soviet Union recognised South Korea. There was also the significant event between the two Koreas with an agreement to ‘resolve differences, adhere to mutual non-aggression, conduct trade, and cooperate’ in 1991. China likewise normalised relations with South Korea in 1992.

Yet as one sees today, reunification does not seem near. The basic premise of German-styled peace progress is flawed, at least based on the anecdotal evidence I have heard. West Germany basically ‘gobbled up’ the East. The led to a tremendous strain on the finances, I have heard one person say that he would not go back to Germany ‘to starve’. In 2010, German paper de Spiegel stated: ‘…economic benefits that West German politicians promised failed to materialize.’ This parallels a recent television discussion this year on Channelnews Asia, where a Korean put forth the view that South Koreans saw North Korea as ‘a burden’. At the time of publishing (1993), North Korea spent 20% of its income on defence, 12% of the male workforce was in the military against 6% in the South.

But perhaps the largest sticking point was the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea in 1991. This was discovered by the United States. It seems that this is crux and key to the entire puzzle? That the North Korean oligarchy or dictatorship is giving its all to maintain power and a life of luxury through means as dangerous as nuclear missiles?

Political realism: China-Russia-US relations

The natural condition of mankind, according to Hobbes, is a state of war in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” because individuals are in a “war of all against all” (L 186).”

[Where L refers to Hobbes’ Leviathan (L), from Leviathan, ed. C.B. Macpherson, Harmondsworth: Penguin Publishers, 1968.] Stephen Finn. (No date). United States Military Academy. Thomas Hobbes: Methodology. http://www.iep.utm.edu/hobmeth/. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Consequently, Hobbes argues that individuals have a “natural right” to actions which achieve their own self-preservation. Transposed to international relations, one would argue this is political realism (see entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) where nation-states compete for benefits or protect themselves.

I recall reading somewhere that Russia, the biggest player of the former Soviet Union had lost its soul and direction after the dissolution of the latter. The USSR was one of the two great socialist experiments – and it failed. Francis Fukuyama had proclaimed the end of history with the winner being the United States. Upon re-reading the chapter on economics from <The Russia-China Axis: The New Cold War and America’s Crisis of Leadership>. (2014). New York. Encounter Books. by Douglas E. Schoen and Melik Kaylan, I tend to agree.

It seems to the authors, survival is the only main goal for both China and Russia. Simplistically, both sets of leadership want to stay in power. Russia and China face threats to legitimacy due to lower/slowing growth. (Earlier, around half a billion Chinese went above the poverty line after the open door policy by Deng Xiaoping.) Further, China, as reported by the South China Morning Post on 30 June 2016, has smog that reduces citizen lifespan by more than 2 years (25 months). In that article, International Energy Agency causes the premature deaths of 1.2 million people per annum. Russia has been unable to diversify from natural resource exports (with 20% of global oil reserves). China too has a headache with its state-owned enterprises which are bloated but create crucial employment. On another note, Chinese labour costs ramped up 20% between 2009 and 2013.

They achieve this by cornering the US, who among other things, attack both countries for their lack of human rights. The US also has challenged the Chinese claims to the South China Sea such as by allowing sales of weaponry to Vietnam from May 2016.

In terms of trade and economics, both Russia and China are streaming into all reaches of the globe even the US itself. China has bought into the US auto industry such as with Faraday electric cars. China, apparently also owns France’s Club Med. In 2012, China overtook the US and European Union as Africa’s biggest trading partner. (In the same year China accounted for 13% of the global economy). China also cut deals with Canada in the oil industry. Russia cancelled $20 billion of debt in 2012 (after closing 9 embassies in the continent in 1992); China cancelled $40 billion of Zimbabwean debt in 2015. The latter also lent $40 billion to Venezuela.

In the vein of the Schoen and Kaylan, China set up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in June 2015. Singapore said that it would ‘…provide new opportunities for our businesses and also promote sustainable growth in Asia.’ The 3 largest voters are China (26%); India (8.4%); and Russia (6.4%). Though the organisation would work in US dollars not renminbi. Those missing from the 50 nation group were the US and Japan. So there is a structural setup to draw US allies away.

The benefits? Silence. Canada for example reduced its critique of China’s human rights record after the oil deal.

Militarily, these economic agreements like those in the Caribbean could eventually lead to Chinese bases there. China recently gained approval to set up its premier naval ‘logistic/support facility’ in Djibouti, that is East Africa along the Suez Canal (Mar 2016 – The Diplomat article). Russia by selling $5.4 billion of weapons to Venzeula from 2010 to 2016, was accused in the book of creating a potential arms race in South America. These things create problems in America’s traditional backyard. One can think back to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 as an (apocalyptic) parallel.

Diplomatically, China and Russia bands ever closer. Channelnews Asia quotes the two as having more than ‘…30 cooperation deals in areas such as trade, infrastructure, foreign affairs, technology and innovation, agriculture, finance, energy, sports and the media.’ As of June 2016, there were a further 58 arrangements still being analysed. As Europe buys more energy from Qatar (Qatar had more to sell since US imports fell due to fracking from North Dakota etc), Russia has increased sales of natural gas to China for instance.

Yet after all this, is political liberalism and cooperation completely out the window?

A-REIT: Ascendas Real Estate Investment Trust and some background

I thought I would not look at REITs again. But in life, things change. [The only constant is change as some have said. On perhaps a digressive note, those teaching/tutoring General Paper (GP) could consider drawing links between consumerism and REITs – I just might myself!]

Let us take a look at the below:

Advertorial for exposition

Advertorial for exposition

Some things that pop out to me:

  • 130 properties at Dec 2015
  • Operates in Singapore and Australia
  • 8th biggest ‘industrial landlord in Australia’ (Feb 2016)
  • Australia properties has alluring traits ‘…long weighted average lease expiry of 6.1 years’ [What does this mean though?] Assets there have contractual terms with ‘built-in annual rental escalation’ at 3.3%
  • A-REIT garnered the Most Transparent Company Award awarded by the Securities Investment Association (Singapore) under the REITS & Business Trusts for 11 years [Upon further research, the 3 runners-up were CapitaMall Trust; K-REIT Asia; and Suntec REIT. That was in 2012. In 2015, the winner was again Ascendas Real Estate Investment Trust; with runners-up being CapitaMall Trust; and Keppel REIT.]
  • It has won the Singapore Building & Construction Authority – Greenmark Gold and Platinum Awards [With research, it seems to have won in 2011 with Changi Business Park Phase Three. No recorded award for the Greenmark in 2016.]

Learning Points from Monetary Authority of Singapore’s MoneySENSE

The website states the last update at 17July 2014.

  • REIT dividends (also called ‘income distributions’) are tax-exempt income; REITs ‘must pay out at least 90% of net income after tax’ so that they can to ‘…enjoy tax exempt status by Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore [IRAS] (subject to certain conditions)’
  • Akin to actively or passively managed mutual funds/exchange traded funds, REITs have to pay fees. These include property managers fees, annual managers’ fees,  ‘trustees’ fees and other expenses…’ and taxes under foreign legal regimes (if any) before investors get the payout
  • Some risks (yes, there are more!):
    • When insolvency occurs, ‘…the assets of the REIT will be used to pay off debtors first.’ The unit holders/investors receive the leftover.
    • Pertaining to liquidity (that if you need your money back), REITS ‘may be relatively less liquid compared to funds investing in financial securities such as stocks and bonds… difficult to quickly find buyers and sellers for property, especially if the value of the property is high… may be difficult for REITs to vary their investment portfolio or sell its assets on short notice…’