S’poreans feeling blue over stock market turmoil

An elderly investor monitors share prices at a bank in Singapore. (AFP)
An elderly investor monitors share prices at a bank in Singapore. (AFP)

One investor closed his stock market account and swore never to return, while another detailed his portfolio — now covered in red — asking fellow-traders for advice on what to do.

Even as the answers began to come in over the day, the shares had dropped further, deepening his losses.

Like previous meltdowns, this one has its fair share of victims, who are wondering what went wrong, what caused the worst stock tumble in three years.

Between 1 and 10 Aug, some S$105 billion was wiped off the Singapore stock market. Whenever something like this happens, there is pain and despair, at least a few bankruptcies and plenty of soul searching.

I was told by a friend that the pastor in his small suburban church prayed on Sunday for divine help for congregation members to survive the turmoil.

One blogger said he had been unable to sleep for several nights after losing money on the market, adding: "I told myself to go on. My heart will go on."

As the country celebrated its 46th National Day, many Singaporeans — especially speculators — are nursing large losses that were sparked off by America's historic credit downgrading.

The worst victims are short-term speculators who borrowed money to trade, often treating the stock market like a casino.

There had been moments of panic in the market these past few days, people dumping shares for whatever price they could get, said a broker.

"They feared that keeping it another day could mean bigger losses," he added.

The losses ranged from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands of dollars per day. But those who buy for long-term investments are less vulnerable to such sharp meltdowns.

The debt woes of Washington (and Europe) are affecting the world, particularly Singapore more than any others in Southeast Asia.

About a third of Singapore's merchandise exports go to the U.S. In addition, the U.S. had invested some S$40 billion in some of the biggest corporations here.

A U.S. in trouble would be a severe blow to Singapore, and equity holders know it.

For several months now, the government has been gearing its citizens to prepare for more global financial trouble.

Technical recession

It now warns that Singapore may fall into a technical recession — growth declining in two consecutive quarters — by the year-end.

For many Singaporeans, this sudden shift in fortunes from boom to gloom is a bit akin to the Twilight Zone. It was something that ran counter to what they had been told earlier.

Until the U.S. downgrade, things seemed to be going well for this city of millionaires. Properties, houses, cars were selling at record high prices and luxury products were virtually flying off the shelves.

Last year, the economy grew by 14.5 percent. So how can this turn into a technical recession within such a short period, many asked.

In fact, the government warnings had been more serious. The next financial crisis, which could come in the next four or five years, would be worse than any previous ones, several leaders had warned.

But the people had paid little heed to the warnings of approaching crisis since early this year. This probably explains why many Singaporeans were poorly prepared.

Instead of being cautious, people were still indulging in a buying spree — of stocks and shares, properties and cars, instead of adopting a cautious approach.
As a result, prices of houses and cars were pushed to historic highs.

The Straits Times Index (STI), for example, rose and rose until it reached a record of 3,227 on Aug 1. Crisis then struck, and it crashed nearly 420 points or 13 percent to 2,810 (at this writing).

Among the pessimists were Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who urged Singaporeans to prepare for a rough road ahead in the next three to four years.

Another, a presidential candidate and former finance minister, Dr Tony Tan, also warned of major difficulties ahead for the republic.

Asked if it would overwhelm Singapore, Tan replied: "We are in unchartered territory here."

Singapore has developed into a materialistic society, in which many youths want to make a fortune — quickly, rather than earn a steady income.

When the days were promising and stock prices rising, the market had been attracting a rising number of fresh graduates and inexperienced housewives to start trading accounts.

Investment clubs had been mushrooming in tertiary institutions in recent years, with more and more students being active in the market.

The past few days, like previous market tumbles, serve as a valuable lesson that fortunes are seldom made by speculation. The growing balloon of stock gambling has been pricked.

Some of these newcomers are today staring at huge paper losses and probably having to hang on for some time. In some cases, parents will have to help.

And the uncertainties still have some way to go.

A writer calling himself "a new improved investor" in lamenting his losses of S$7,000 said: "I think I may not survive this one.

"Anyway, a lot of people feel that I should not play shares. Looks like its true!"

Amid all the gloom and doom is this advice by DoReMi, in case there are one or two victims too overwhelmed by losses to consider doing something desperate: "Cheer up! No matter how much you lost, you still have a life to live. Think of your loved ones!"

A former Reuters correspondent and newspaper editor, the writer is now a freelance columnist writing on general trends in Singapore. This post first appeared on his blog www.littlespeck.com on 14 August 2011.