June 29, 2005

Average International P/E Ratios by Country

I recently sent the following inquiry to Vanguard:

I currently hold a position in the Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock Index (VEIEX). I notice that on the research portion of your site, you do not prominently display the average weighted P/E ratio for this fund, as you do many of your domestic funds.

If possible, I would like to know this information. Is there a reason why it is not available?

To which Suzanne from Vanguard replied:

We do not provide P/E Ratios for our international funds. There are a couple of reasons involved in not reporting these characteristics for international funds. One is a matter of operation. These statistics are not available in time for disclosure in our regularly scheduled reports. The second reason and the more important issue is that these aggregate statistics for international funds can be difficult to interpret and often misleading. These statistics should be looked at on a country-per-country basis. For example, the Japanese market usually has a much higher P/E than that of the UK. If a portfolio's aggregate P/E is high, that could simply mean that it has a large exposure to Japan-- and not that it has a growth bias. In other words, an international fund's aggregate characteristics sometimes are more attributable to its country selection than to its investment style.

I don't buy the fact that a fund company that manages billions of dollars of assets has difficulty gathering this data, but beyond that this answer still struck me as odd. Is the average P/E ratio for the Japanese market really that much higher than the rest of the world?

After plenty of digging (I assure you, information on this topic is not readily available), I managed to find this article, from which I pulled the following numbers:

Country Price/earnings ratio
of major stock
index (2004 est.)
Hong Kong 17.580
Thailand 10.624
Brazil 10.942
Korea , Rep. 11.415
China 39.397
Indonesia 12.559
Russia 6.344
Italy 17.866
Malaysia 15.165
Singapore 13.776
USA 17.499
Netherlands 11.926
Taiwan 12.827
Japan 31.606
Germany 15.064
UK 18.711
France 14.518
Mexico 13.889
Canada 16.727
South Africa 11.602
Spain 15.043
Portugal 19.700
Switzerland 15.717

It appears that Suzanne was right. We can see that both the Japanese and (particularly) the Chinese markets are trading at very high multiples compared to the rest of the world.

At first I thought I was missing something here. How is it that a dollar of profit is worth nearly twice as much when it comes from Japan as it is when it comes from the US?

However, when we consider that the Japanese economy is overweighed with growth (technology) companies, combined with the explosive growth potential of Asia, this does not seem terribly unreasonable.

And obviously China is a huge orgy right now.

So this brings us back to the Efficient Market Hypothesis, and we can continue to go about our business.

In Investing

Posted at 09:39 PM | Permanent link

May 22, 2005

Roth IRAs and a nod to Vanguard Funds

Trafalgar Square, London

Over the years, I've been contributing to a Roth IRA a few thousand dollars at a time. Thus far, my account has resided with Ohio Savings Bank, simply because this was a convenient place start five years ago. I started out with a certificate of deposit (CD), but at some point the CD expired, and my money was rolled into a plain old savings account making interest in the low single digits. At the time I told myself that I didn't want to open another CD because I was planning to invest the money in something more substantial, such as a mutual fund, "real soon now". That was over a year and a half ago.

Of course, this is silly. The whole point of a Roth IRA is that you put money away, and although you can't touch your gains until age 59 1/2, the government can't touch them either. The higher the returns on your money, the more you are potentially saving in taxes. By having kept my money in a savings account earning bollocks in interest for over a year, I've thrown away thousands and thousands of dollars in potential tax savings over time. This is not a good idea.

For the past few weeks I've been been researching brokerages and fund companies that would allow me to invest in mutual funds. A handful of publications offer ratings of discount brokerages, but it seems that these are either generated randomly or there are other factors (kick-backs?) at play because I see little consistency amongst the opinions of different publications.

Around this time, it hit me that Philip Greenspun had written an essay entitled Money, Money, Money. In Money, Money, Money, Philip speaks highly of Vanguard funds, as do many of his commentators. This prompted me to surf over to vanguard.com.

I had a look at their fee structure decided that I can avoid maintenance fees if I play my cards right. Their fund expense ratios look good. Looks like a good fit.

Vanguard's online Roth IRA transfer application is mostly straightforward, but at one point I got stuck and had a question. This is how this works:

I call 1-800-414-1321. Zero hold time! I'm connected to retirement specialist Brian. Brian answers my question and proceeds to ask if I understand Vanguard's fee structure. This is impressive because fees are one of the most confusing parts about financial accounts. At this point in my life I've come to expect vague statements about fees to be tucked away in obscure portions of the online documentation, and even after finding those I'm suspicious that something in the fine print is going to screw me.

I explain to Brian that I'm planning to invest all my money into one fund (the Total Stock Market Index Fund). Brian confirms my understanding that my total balance in this one fund will give me an exemption from any maintenance fees, and that the fund has no front-end or back-end costs. I thank Brian and hang up.

Before submitting the application I called Vanguard two more times to confirm a few things. Each time zero hold time, and each time the rep was very knowledgeable, spoke crisp English, and it didn't sound like he was working in the midst of a cocktail party.

After completing my Roth transfer application, I decided to transfer some additional money to Vanguard and open a general investing account in addition to my Roth IRA.

Vanguard has some nice features such as automatic investments where money is periodically drawn from your bank account and invested in a fund. This gives you the benefit of dollar cost averaging, and also forces you to be disciplined about your savings. The nice thing about investing in no-load mutual funds is that you can make a lot of small (few hundred dollar) transactions like this per year without getting reamed by commission fees.

Thus far I like Vanguard for mutual fund investments. We'll see what the future holds.

By the way, if you're thinking about investing in any capacity, I highly recommend that you take a stroll down to your local art house movie theater and see Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room in order to build up your mistrust of corporate America and investment bankers before you give them your money. Jeff has a good review.

Posted at 05:15 PM | Permanent link