Due Diligence Questions For Investors

If you are thinking about investing in something, you have to do your due diligence. The finance company collapses, ponzi scheme failures and property investment scams that have been revealed following the global financial crisis ram home the fact that most investors don’t do their due diligence.

How can an average investor perform due diligence on a prospective investment? The truth is they probably can’t. If you don’t have above average knowledge of the relationship between risk and return, how probability actually works, what the law is surrounding investments and standard procedure for legitimate investment firms you should stick to investing in index funds.

The inability of the average investor to perform due diligence is why we have to make silly statements like “taking my investment advice without consulting a financial advisor or 3rd party solicitor first is really stupid”. The development of “plain English” product disclosure statements prepared in the format preferred by the Financial Markets Authority can’t account for how stupid some people are.

If you can’t explain to a reasonably clever teenager concepts like diversification, correlation of returns, the risks and rewards of Kiwisaver accounts, performance relative to benchmarks, impact of performance and management fees on long-term returns and answer questions that dullards send into Mary Holm every week you have no business going anywhere near the financial markets.

Armed with your above average knowledge of basic financial topics, you should be able to pigeon hole investment products you’re looking at. When you know the category of investment you are dealing with you can then ask the best questions for that category of investment. The Financial Markets Authority actually has some great information on its website. As does the Retirement Commission’s “Sorted”.

For example the Moa Brewery IPO can be filed under “new listing backed by guys with a track record of selling NZ brands for a premium to large corporates and non-trivial likelihood of success”. Examples of questions you’d want to answer before investing here would be:

  • How are the founders and IPO participants incentives aligned?
  • Who is managing the listing and what fees are they getting? Do they have to support the initial listing price?
  • What do the back-of-the-envelope calculations look like for the premium beer market?
  • What is the worst-case scenario if I put my money in the IPO?
  • What are the risks I am exposed to here? Currency risk? Distributor solvency risk? Consumer tastes and preferences risk?
  • Can I build a basic model in Excel that resembles what the Moa guys have put in the prospectus and test their assumptions?

If you are performing due diligence on a specific asset manager, there are lots of things you can do to lower the risk of getting “Madoffed”. Reading the disclosure documents very carefully is the first step. Then, conducting a detailed Google search on the asset manager, entities they are associated with, similar investment products, credit checks, background checks if you are investing a lot of money with one manager and testing whoever is trying to sell you the investment product with aggressive lines of questioning are all part of investigating whether an asset manager’s track record is plausible or someone is taking the mickey.

A clear understanding of probability and investment returns is also essential. Past performance does not predict future performance. Just because a hot-shot asset manager has beaten the NZX50 for the past decade doesn’t mean they possess some amazing ability. Never discount the possibility that someone has had really good luck and is rationalising their success by pointing to their “track record” and “investing acumen”.

If you’ve been reading this article and don’t understand every single concept I’m referring to, you have no business actively investing. The Financial Markets Authority should restrict investment products to people who are capable of performing due diligence independently.

Why is this? Well, it’s because in New Zealand we privatise profits and socialise the losses. If someone makes a bad investment and loses their retirement savings they will become a burden on every other Kiwi by accessing superannuation when they previously would have been able to decline it. They’ll also become eligible for nursing home subsidies if they haven’t stashed the rest of their assets in trusts.

Behavioural finance studies have proven that very few people are capable of making rational investment decisions. They are subject to enormous biases, under-estimate the likelihood that they are making a poor decision and over-estimate the likely returns from investment products they are considering. We think we know more about investing than we actually do and cry to the media when we make really dumb decisions.

I am not currently in a position to make substantial investments in hedge funds or pick individual stocks. My strategy at present is pure capital preservation and hedging against inflation. An index tracking product like the NZX SmartShares is the most reasonable level of risk I’d be comfortable with at this stage. Taking long-term bets with out-of-the-money options is too risky at present.

Handing over your entire investment strategy to a person whose incentives are not aligned with yours (think : commissions, kickbacks, golfing trips, liquid lunches at restaurants you’ve never heard of) and then losing it all is proof positive that financial darwinism exists.

If you are not prepared to do enormous groundwork in analysing potential investment products, doing the due diligence, clarifying things you don’t understand with your solicitor, asking your accountant whether claimed tax benefits are likely to result in an IRD audit or even performing a Google search on the potential investment provider and associated entities, you shouldn’t even consider index funds.

You could choose the conservative option on your Kiwisaver and keep all of your money in term deposits. But even then you’re an unsecured creditor to the Big Four banks and will get clipped if Open Bank Resolution is ever implemented. Do you even know how Open Bank Resolution will work? If not, you should take five minutes from your busy day to read about it.

I think you should read dozens of books before you go anywhere near the shark-infested waters of investing. If you don’t have a broad understanding of investing, risk and probability you are a mark for shysters who will take advantage of your naivety. Just because you have achieved success in one area of your life, namely having enough money to invest, doesn’t mean that success will transfer to your investing efforts.

I am reasonably smart. I read extremely widely in economics and finance. I have extremely low levels of confidence in the financial markets and the “professionals” who work there. Commingling of client funds and business funds, expenses being charged to investors and exceptionally poor after tax and after inflation returns make me wonder what excess return can be earned from assets even marginally more sophisticated than index funds like ETFs.

NB: For the illiterate I’m not an Authorised Financial Advisor and this shouldn’t be taken as financial advice tailored to your specific situation. If you actually don’t do your own research you are a dunce who deserves to lose everything. Search for an independent financial advisor who won’t charge commissions on investment products or read a few basic investing books before even visiting a sharebroker’s website or requesting information on something you’re unlikely to understand.