Ease Into the World of Investing

The United Nations does it. Governments do it. Companies do it. Fund managers do it. Millions of ordinary working people – from business owners to factory workers – do it. Housewives do it. Even farmers and children do it.’It’ here is investing: the science and art of creating, protecting and enhancing your wealth in the financial markets. This article introduces some of the most important concerns in the world of investment.Let’s start with your objectives. While clearly the goal is to make more money, there are 3 specific reasons institutions, professionals and retail investors (people like you and me) invest:For Security, ie for protection against inflation or market crashes
For Income, ie to receive regular income from their investments
For Growth, ie for long-term growth in the value of their investmentsInvestments are generally structured to focus on one or other of these objectives, and investment professionals (such as fund managers) spend a lot of time balancing these competing objectives. With a little bit of education and time, you can do almost the same thing yourself.One of the first questions to ask yourself is how much risk you’re comfortable with. To put it more plainly: how much money are you prepared to lose? Your risk tolerance level depends on your personality, experiences, number of dependents, age, level of financial knowledge and several other factors. Investment advisors measure your risk tolerance level so they can classify you by risk profile (eg, ‘Conservative’, ‘Moderate’, ‘Aggressive’) and recommend the appropriate investment portfolio (explained below).However, understanding your personal risk tolerance level is necessary for you too, especially with something as important as your own money. Your investments should be a source of comfort, not pain. Nobody can guarantee you’ll make a profit; even the most sensible investment decisions can turn against you; there are always ‘good years’ and ‘bad years’. You may lose part or all of your investment so always invest only what you are prepared to lose.At some point you’ll want to withdraw some or all of your investment funds. When is that point likely to be: in 1 year, 5 years, 10 years or 25 years? Clearly, you’ll want an investment that allows you to withdraw at least part of your funds at this point. Your investment timeframe – short-term, medium-term or long-term – will often determine what kinds of investments you can go for and what kinds of returns to expect.All investments involve a degree of risk. One of the ‘golden rules’ of investing is that reward is related to risk: the higher the reward you want, the higher the risk you have to take. Different investments can come with very different levels of risk (and associated reward); it’s important that you appreciate the risks associated with any investment you’re planning to make. There’s no such thing as a risk-free investment, and your bank deposits are no exception. Firstly, while Singapore bank deposits are rightly considered very safe, banks in other countries have failed before and continue to fail. More importantly, in 2010 the highest interest rate on Singapore dollar deposits up to $10,000 was 0.375%, while the average inflation rate from Jan-Nov 2010 was 2.66%. You were losing money just by leaving your savings in the bank.Today, there are many, many types of investments (‘asset classes’) available. Some – such as bank deposits, stocks (shares) and unit trusts – you’re already familiar with, but there are several others you should be aware of. Some of the most common ones:Bank Deposits
Shares
Investment-Linked Product1
Unit Trusts2
ETFs3
Gold41 An Investment-Linked Product (ILP) is an insurance plan that combines protection and investment. ILPs main advantage is that they offer life insurance.2 A Unit Trust is a pool of money professionally managed according to a specific, long-term management objective (eg, a unit trust may invest in well-known companies all over the world to try to provide a balance of high returns and diversification). The main advantage of unit trusts is that you don’t have to pay brokers’ commissions.3 An ETF or Exchange-Traded Fund comes in many different forms: for example, there are equity ETFs that hold, or track the performance of, a basket of stocks (eg Singapore, emerging economies); commodity ETFs that hold, or track the price of, a single commodity or basket of commodities (eg Silver, metals); and currency ETFs that track a major currency or basket of currencies (eg Euro). ETFs offer two main advantages: they trade like shares (on stock exchanges such as the SGX) and typically come with very low management fees.The main difference between ETFs and Unit Trusts is that ETFs are publicly-traded assets while Unit Trusts are privately-traded assets, meaning that you can buy and sell them yourself anytime during market hours.4 ‘Gold’ here refers to gold bullion, certificates of ownership or gold savings accounts. However, note that you can invest in gold in many other ways, including gold ETFs, gold Unit Trusts; and shares in gold mining companies.With the advent of the Internet and online brokers, there are so many investment alternatives available today that even a beginner investor with $5,000 to invest can find several investment options suited to her objectives, risk profile and timeframe.Diversification basically means trying to reduce risk by making a variety of investments, ie investing your money in multiple companies, industries and countries (and as your financial knowledge and wealth grows, in different ‘asset classes’ – cash, stocks, ETFs, commodities such as gold and silver, etc). This collection of investments is termed your Investment Portfolio.Some level of diversification is important because in times of crisis, similar investments tend to behave similarly. Two of the best examples in recent history are the Singapore stock market crashes of late-2008/early-2009, during the US ‘Subprime’ crisis, and 1997, during the ‘Asian Financial Crisis’, when the price of large numbers of stocks plunged. ‘Diversifying’ by investing in different stocks wouldn’t have helped you very much on these occasions.The concept and power of compounding are best explained by example. Assume we have 3 investments: the first returns 0.25% a year; the second returns 5% a year; and the third returns 10% a year. For each investment, we compare 2 scenarios:Without compounding, ie the annual interest is taken out of the account.
With compounding, ie the annual interest is left (re-invested) in the account.Let’s look at the returns over 25 years for all 3 investments, assuming we start off with $10,000 in Year 0:With 0.25% return a year, your investment will grow to $10,625 after 25 years without compounding; your investment becomes $10,644 after 25 years with compounding.
With 5% return a year, your investment will grow to $22,500 after 25 years without compounding; your investment becomes $33,864 after 25 years with compounding.
With 10% return a year, your investment will grow to $35,000 after 25 years without compounding; your investment becomes $108,347 after 25 years with compounding.This shows the dramatic effects of both higher returns and compounding: 10% annual returns coupled with 25 years of compounding will return you more than 10 times your initial investment. And 10% returns are by no means unrealistic: educated investors who actively manage their portfolio themselves and practise diversification can achieve even higher returns, even with some losing years.People of all ages and backgrounds need practical and customised guidance in developing their financial knowledge and skills in order to reach their financial goals. In this article we’ve tried to describe in simple terms some of the most important concepts and principles you need to understand on this journey.

Alternative Financing Vs. Venture Capital: Which Option Is Best for Boosting Working Capital?

There are several potential financing options available to cash-strapped businesses that need a healthy dose of working capital. A bank loan or line of credit is often the first option that owners think of – and for businesses that qualify, this may be the best option.

In today’s uncertain business, economic and regulatory environment, qualifying for a bank loan can be difficult – especially for start-up companies and those that have experienced any type of financial difficulty. Sometimes, owners of businesses that don’t qualify for a bank loan decide that seeking venture capital or bringing on equity investors are other viable options.

But are they really? While there are some potential benefits to bringing venture capital and so-called “angel” investors into your business, there are drawbacks as well. Unfortunately, owners sometimes don’t think about these drawbacks until the ink has dried on a contract with a venture capitalist or angel investor – and it’s too late to back out of the deal.

Different Types of Financing

One problem with bringing in equity investors to help provide a working capital boost is that working capital and equity are really two different types of financing.

Working capital – or the money that is used to pay business expenses incurred during the time lag until cash from sales (or accounts receivable) is collected – is short-term in nature, so it should be financed via a short-term financing tool. Equity, however, should generally be used to finance rapid growth, business expansion, acquisitions or the purchase of long-term assets, which are defined as assets that are repaid over more than one 12-month business cycle.

But the biggest drawback to bringing equity investors into your business is a potential loss of control. When you sell equity (or shares) in your business to venture capitalists or angels, you are giving up a percentage of ownership in your business, and you may be doing so at an inopportune time. With this dilution of ownership most often comes a loss of control over some or all of the most important business decisions that must be made.

Sometimes, owners are enticed to sell equity by the fact that there is little (if any) out-of-pocket expense. Unlike debt financing, you don’t usually pay interest with equity financing. The equity investor gains its return via the ownership stake gained in your business. But the long-term “cost” of selling equity is always much higher than the short-term cost of debt, in terms of both actual cash cost as well as soft costs like the loss of control and stewardship of your company and the potential future value of the ownership shares that are sold.

Alternative Financing Solutions

But what if your business needs working capital and you don’t qualify for a bank loan or line of credit? Alternative financing solutions are often appropriate for injecting working capital into businesses in this situation. Three of the most common types of alternative financing used by such businesses are:

1. Full-Service Factoring – Businesses sell outstanding accounts receivable on an ongoing basis to a commercial finance (or factoring) company at a discount. The factoring company then manages the receivable until it is paid. Factoring is a well-established and accepted method of temporary alternative finance that is especially well-suited for rapidly growing companies and those with customer concentrations.

2. Accounts Receivable (A/R) Financing – A/R financing is an ideal solution for companies that are not yet bankable but have a stable financial condition and a more diverse customer base. Here, the business provides details on all accounts receivable and pledges those assets as collateral. The proceeds of those receivables are sent to a lockbox while the finance company calculates a borrowing base to determine the amount the company can borrow. When the borrower needs money, it makes an advance request and the finance company advances money using a percentage of the accounts receivable.

3. Asset-Based Lending (ABL) – This is a credit facility secured by all of a company’s assets, which may include A/R, equipment and inventory. Unlike with factoring, the business continues to manage and collect its own receivables and submits collateral reports on an ongoing basis to the finance company, which will review and periodically audit the reports.

In addition to providing working capital and enabling owners to maintain business control, alternative financing may provide other benefits as well:

It’s easy to determine the exact cost of financing and obtain an increase.
Professional collateral management can be included depending on the facility type and the lender.
Real-time, online interactive reporting is often available.
It may provide the business with access to more capital.
It’s flexible – financing ebbs and flows with the business’ needs.
It’s important to note that there are some circumstances in which equity is a viable and attractive financing solution. This is especially true in cases of business expansion and acquisition and new product launches – these are capital needs that are not generally well suited to debt financing. However, equity is not usually the appropriate financing solution to solve a working capital problem or help plug a cash-flow gap.

A Precious Commodity

Remember that business equity is a precious commodity that should only be considered under the right circumstances and at the right time. When equity financing is sought, ideally this should be done at a time when the company has good growth prospects and a significant cash need for this growth. Ideally, majority ownership (and thus, absolute control) should remain with the company founder(s).

Alternative financing solutions like factoring, A/R financing and ABL can provide the working capital boost many cash-strapped businesses that don’t qualify for bank financing need – without diluting ownership and possibly giving up business control at an inopportune time for the owner. If and when these companies become bankable later, it’s often an easy transition to a traditional bank line of credit. Your banker may be able to refer you to a commercial finance company that can offer the right type of alternative financing solution for your particular situation.

Taking the time to understand all the different financing options available to your business, and the pros and cons of each, is the best way to make sure you choose the best option for your business. The use of alternative financing can help your company grow without diluting your ownership. After all, it’s your business – shouldn’t you keep as much of it as possible?

Marketing Your E-commerce Business Through Social Media Networks

The goal with social network marketing is twofold:1. You are trying to enhance your site’s community by establishing outposts on social networking sites so people who share your interests, or are interested in your products and services, find you and your site.2. Getting involved in social networking multiplies the number of places that your site and your products can be found by search engines, which is critically important to the success of your e-commerce business.How To Leverage Social Media Networks To Our Advantage?Simply, we are trying to spread the word about your e-commerce business. You can take your product reviews or blog posts and spread them as far as possible online enlisting the help of these sites. It’s important to make sure the content you’re promoting is interesting and helpful to the audience you’re trying to reach. Remember, people like to do business with their friends if they’ve never met you offline. By being reasonable and participating in social networking, you’ll expand your credibility and potential customer base in many important and helpful ways.It’s also important to recognize that these social media outlets were designed to serve as conversation platforms, and not as overt marketing channels. Sending messages that are overly promotional or commercial is often compared to shouting at a party where everyone else is chatting quietly, and the backlash can overwhelm the benefits of participation. As an ecommerce business owner I recommend taking a couple of weeks to monitor the various sites to get a sense of the patterns and informal rules before posting anything.Which Sites Do You Need To Target?Here’s a brief overview of the important sites you need to target:Digg.com: Digg is a popular social news website in which community members vote articles up and down, with the most popular articles appearing on the front page. Users submit articles on topics including technology, world & business, science, gaming, lifestyle, entertainment, sports and offbeat. Having an article reach the home page can generate a tremendous amount of traffic to your e-commerce venture very quickly, but a Digg link can be helpful even if you don’t make the front page. Your link will be archived and available to search engines, as well as being available to users who search within the Digg archives directly.Twitter.com: Twitter is generating a ton of online buzz, and for good reason. The short messaging service is evolving into a communication and news platform that e-commerce ventures can’t afford to ignore anymore. Twitter allows users to exchange short messages that are limited to 140 characters, which is roughly about 25 words or so. Many sites have found good success posting (“tweeting,” in Twitter lingo) short summaries of new blog posts or product reviews, highlighting interesting articles or trends in their area of expertise, or just reaching out and seeing who might be interested in the same things they are.Twitter’s ‘hashtag’ (#) function, for instance, makes it very easy for users to search on specific events or topics other users have marked with hashtag function. Many attendees at popular conferences, for instance, use hashtag searches to find and meet each other. Check Twitter’s search page (search.twitter.com) to see popular topics generating user interest.Facebook.com: Facebook has long been popular with college-aged students, but since it opened its doors to a general audience, the site has been growing rapidly, with most new users coming from an adult audience that’s over 30. To reach this growing audience, e-commerce venture owners can create positive marketing relationships on Facebook in two ways. The first and most obvious way is to invite customers to “friend” you on the site. You may not want customers to share the same details or photos you’re sharing with friends and family members, but you can create limited profiles that allow people to get a bit of a behind-the-scenes look into your business without revealing too many personal details.In addition, while Facebook is best known for its personal “profiles,” it does let organizations create pages that allow Facebook members to become fans of your e-commerce venture. While they may be more likely to become fans of a football team or a Bollywood star, Facebook fan pages give your venture another opportunity to highlight interesting content related to your business and, almost more importantly, provide search engines with another place to discover content about, and related to, your e-commerce venture and your market niche.If you do not have a personal Facebook account, you can create a specific account for your business. According to Facebook, a business account can add information, photos or videos just as a personal account can, but can’t see information about visitors and can’t explore other areas of Facebook, so this might not be the best option for your e-commerce venture.MySpace.com: Similarly, MySpace is a popular site especially with younger consumers, that’s becoming an important marketing tool for e-commerce businesses (and a critical outlet for bands to reach their audience). As with Facebook, you can reach this growing audience by forming relationships with customers and other people. In addition to setting up a profile, MySpace lets users join and create groups that attract people who share your interests or hobbies. If you’re trying to sell guitar accessories online, joining groups that serve guitar players would give you great insights into their interests and equipment needs, and allows you to share content and create relationships with other members of the guitar-playing community.Does Social Media Networks Really Help?If you want your e-commerce business to stand out amongst the crowd it’s becoming necessary to have these tools on your website. Your business will not survive over the long term if you are not connected with the audiences within these networks. Furthermore you can achieve great success simply by offering something of value and your e-commerce business can go viral very quickly.Take the time to understand how these social media outlets fit into your e-commerce business and over time you will start to see the benefits.
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