Wednesday, February 22, 2012

You know you've been spending too much time in the air when.... get upgraded to first class for free. Looking forward to a few weeks on the ground.

The upside is that I'll have enough Asia miles for a few long haul upgrades after I retire. We're already discussing travel plans.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Book Review: Hetty

Hetty Green was America's first female tycoon. My previous knowledge of her life was largely limited to the rather shallow exaggerations of her extreme frugality and the fact that the estimated size of her fortune at the time of her death to America's GDP at the time is similar  to that of people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

As is often the case, the truth is more complex. Author Charles Slack paints the portrait of a woman who possessed many traits, including the extreme frugality for which she is best known, an obsession with money and an extremely good track record as an investor - holding a very diversified portfolio of assets, avoiding debt and being disciplined enough to avoid market euphoria and profit from market panics. During the crisis of 1907 when JP Morgan (and others) were intervening to stem the panic, she was the only woman involved. Much of her financial education came from her father, Edward Robinson, who built a fortune initially based on whaling which Hetty would eventually inherit most of.

Hetty makes for interesting reading. Although the book lacks some of the depth of other biographies I have read, I suspect that this is in a large part due to Hetty herself - she was an only child, had only two children and no grandchildren, she largely avoided becoming involved in contentious transactions (a few law suits notwithstanding), didn't control any companies and avoided high society for most of her life. '

It was somewhat ironic that after her daughter Sylvia died, the fortune that Hetty had so vigorously enlarged and defended was bequeathed to a large number of charities.

All in all, an enjoyable read.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Silver purchased

This morning I allocated a small amount of additional capital to my position in silver.  Essentially, I view precious metals (and commodities generally) as a means of diversification - at the end of the day they do not generate any income. Given that at least part of the silver produced each year is used in various products, I have more confidence in silver than gold (of which very little is actually used for anything other than decorative or investment purposes).

I paid HK$261.3 per ounce (USD33.61). The silver is notional (paper) rather than physical as the transaction costs are lower and there are no storage costs. I realise that I a taking credit risk on the issuing bank.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

BOC centenary bank notes: a rational frenzy

The last two days saw extremely long queues outside fifty Bank of China branches across Hong Kong as people scrambled to buy a special issue of bank notes celebrating the founding of the Bank of China in 1912. People were queueing for several hours and in many cases were disappointed. Police were highly visible and in places set up barriers to control the crowds. When I went to the local BOC branch for some unrelated business yesterday, the entrance I usually use was barricaded shut and I had to navigate my way past the throng before getting inside.

The size of the crowds exceeded those seen during the McSnoopy craze or the release of the iPad or iPhone 4s. It was also interesting to observe the mix of people lining up to get their hands on the notes - all age groups were well represented, there were far more men than women and almost not foreigners. The Hong Kong Standard mentioned that some of the buyers were representing syndicates from the mainland.

The $100 legal tender notes were being sold for $150 each with a limit of two per person. In the secondary market they were (reportedly) selling for upwards of $2000, although most reported sales were for lesser sums. Assuming the typical buyer resold for HK$1200 profit, that is not a bad return for the effort and capital involved. For many in Hong Kong, it is not far away from one week's wages making the act if participating in the process a very rational one.

The fact that the queues remianed orderly, in spite of some people being disappointed, relecting on the extensive experience Hong Kongers have in standing in queues.

HKR International Limited purchased

This morning I placed a few orders to top up some of my existing holdings and to add one new position. Unfortunately, the market didn't co-operate and the only order which was partially filled was for a few more HKR International (HK:480). At my purchase price of HK$3.00 I am still getting a trailing yield of more than 5.5% (which may or may not be sustainable).

HKR International is now one of my ten largest positions in individual equities.

Retired husband syndrome

Following up on a comment on my 12 months to go post, I read some articles about Retired Husband Syndrome and couples adjusting when the husband stops working.

Retired Husband Syndrome is mostly associated with Japan where traditional marital divisions and habits caused stress (on both partners) when the stereotypical Japanese career salary man stopped working. More generally, there can be issues as both partners need to adjust when one of them goes from spending most of the day out of the house to spending most of the day at home.

This causes me no concern at all. To address what appear to be the major causes of domestic problems when a full time bread winner

1. Mental and preparation and communication: we have been discussing and planning for early retirement for several years - mentally we are both ready for it. We also talk a lot

2. Keeping the husband busy: I have planned many things to keep me occupied (physically and mentally) post retirement. I'm starting to work on one of them already (writing a novel). I won't be pestering Mrs Traineeinvestor all day out of boredom

3. Domestic contributions: I do more cooking than Mrs Traineeinvestor and am actually looking forward to doing more in that area. While I am less engaged with the children than my wife (due to working hours), both of us are looking forward to me doing more in that area next year (whether the children are looking forward  to it is another matter)

4. Keeping the wife busy: Mrs Traineeinvestor is still working part time and has many interests of her own both in the home and out of the home

5. Sense of purpose: I do not expect to feel like I have lost any sense of purpose when I retire. I'll still be providing for the family and I will still have goals to achieve

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

12 months to go - second attempt

About a year ago I put up a post entitled "12-months-to-go-maybe" in which I stated that:
From a financial perspective, I am firmly on track to hit my number by Feb 2012. It will take a meaningfully bad return on investments this year to change that.
Which is pretty much what happened with equity markets slumping and the emerging markets in which most of my money is invested being among the worst places to be. So another year in the work force to provide that margin of safety to ensure that once I retire I will not have to unretire. The combination of additional savings (from both of us), our home mortgage being reduced by 1/9th, a year's worth of dividends, interest and net cash from our investment properties and reduced balances on the mortgages on the investment properties should see us end the year in very good shape.

In terms of things that need to be done between now and my last working day:

1. a final review of the finances with Mrs Traineeinvestor before I hand in my notice: Assuming the numbers still make sense this will not be an issue as she is fully on board with me taking early retirement

2. change over the mobile phone account: while phone is mine, the account goes to the office. I'll have to pay that myself going forward

3. medical and dental insurance: I am on a company plan. While the plan can be extended to retirees, it is at the discretion of the insurance company and I can't ask until I've handed in my notice. Given the state of Hong Kong's health services I am not overly concerned

4. medical check up: I will do a full medical check up towards the end of the year before I hand in my notice. If there are any major issues, I will delay resigning until they have been dealt with

5. shredding binge: I will use the office's high end shredders for any personal papers that I no longer want to keep and send some old hard drives to be degaussed with the firm's ones. I'll buy a small shredder for home use in due course

6. update my contact list: I will transfer/copy the contact details of people I want to keep in touch with to my personal computer (since I will not be going to a competitor my employer's practice is to allow this within reason)

7. make a decision on what to do with tombstones and deal mementos from transactions I have worked on: current thinking is just to leave them behind. Sure, they look good in the office but there isn't much room at home for them

8. deregister from professional bodies: I see no point in continuing to pay annual fees or, worse, comply with continuing educational requirements. I will also step down from some committees that I serve on

9. notify people of changes in contact details: since I don't want to announce my resignation before I actually resign, this needs to be done while I am serving out my notice

10. draw up a detailed list of activities and goals for the first three months, first twelve months and first two years: I want to make sure I keep myself mentally and physically active from day one. I also want to get into the habit of spending more time on my hobbies vices before I quit rather than going cold turkey on the last day. I already have a rough draft but I can't seem to stop adding to it

11. get references from the firm and the relevant professional body: just in case and the may help with other activities

Anything else?

Valentine's Day - YUCK!

I really hate Valentine's Day. Really. The good news is that I am not alone. One on-line poll which I saw, showed that less than 4% of respondents actually "loved" Valentine's Day while in aggregate 43% either thought it was "irritating - geared towards retail" or simply "loath" it. I fall squarely into the latter camp - I hate being ripped off with over priced flowers, overpriced meals, irritated to death by endless advertisements and being forced to participate in an event that has no real meaning whatsoever. It's about as unromantic as you can get.

The good news is that Mrs Traineeinvestor is a very pragmatic person - no flowers on Valentine's Day or Mothers' Day by request.

Even though I usually provide a home cooked dinner by candle light, this year we will be going out just for a change but I do not intend to make a habit out of it. I'd much rather spend a couple of hours in the kitchen cooking up a special meal.

Monday, February 13, 2012

CMOC sold

As part of the review and clean up of my smaller positions, I sold my remaining shares in CMOC (HK:3993) this morning. As much as a like the company's balance sheet strength and other attributes, I didn't see enough value at present prices to warrant making an additional investment.  I sold at HK$3.43 per share.

Five of the eleven "small" positions have now been dealt with.

Tibet 5100 purchased

This morning I added a few more shares in Tibet 5100 (HK:1115) to the portfolio. I paid HK$2.00 for the additional shares.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Tibet 5100 purchased

This afternoon I purchased shares in Tibet 5100 (HK:1115). Tibet 5100 is essentially a bottler and distributor of mineral water sourced in Tibet. The company is still very much in growth mode as it builds up its client base and expands its distribution network generally. As at 30th June, the company's balance sheet had no debt and RMB1.1 billion in cash on the balance sheet. Assuming the first half is representative of the full year (which is a huge assumption but not much other information is available), I would expect the company to be on a PE in the range of 10-12x 2012 earnings and I would be very surprised if it did not pay a meaningful maiden dividend. The strength of the balance sheet combined with the very large gross profit margin gives a measure of downside protection.

Conceptually, bottled water is an industry that has considerable potential to grow in China. Outside of tourist and office areas penetration rates are (I believe - I couldn't find any hard data) low and water quality is a huge issue in China generally.

I paid HK$2.05 for my shares.

AUPU sold

This afternoon I sold off another of my smaller investments AUPU (HK:477).  My sale price was HK$0.70 and the net loss was around 21%. I came very close to going the other way and adding to my position - I actually like what the company is doing - but, in the end, were more concerned about the effects of cost pressure on earnings.

Four of the eleven "small" positions have now been dealt with.

OK, now should I be worried?

With headlines like these I have to wonder if the new year's rally in equity markets has created a feeling of too much optimism among investors?

Now while I have tremendous respect for Warren Buffett and Larry Fink as extremely successful investors (nothwithstanding Mr Buffert's misguided statements on taxes), I really do start getting a little bit concerned when too many people start talking up the attractions of investing in equities and the media start giving the bulls more coverage than the bears.

Taking the articles referred to in context, it is relatively easy to take the view that equities offer better value than bonds at present with the important caveats that an investor must have a sufficiently long time horizon and be able to live with the volatility. That said, I am not a fan of making all of nothing bets on one asset class, prefering to benefit from the benefits of a little diversification (risk reduction and reblancing). This becomes particularly important once I leave the work force and lose the security of a monthly paycheque. Looking at the Berkshire balance sheet (about half in bonds and cash), it would appear that Mr Buffett is not a fan of betting the farm on one asset class either.

Vietnam Tracker Fund purchased

As part of my ongoing review of small investments, I decided to add to my position in the Vietnam Tracker fund (HK:3087) rather than sell the position. I remain positive about Vietnam for the longer term. I paid HK$184 per unit late yesterday afternoon for the extra investment.

I have now dealt with three of the eleven "small" investments.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Perennial sold

As part of a portfolio clean up, I have been taking a close look at some of the smaller investments in the portfolio. Each investment takes up a certain amount of time to monitor and, as the portfolio has grown, I have concluded that while there is room for some smaller or more speculative investments in the portfolio, it is not terribly productive to have too many such investments at any one time - my time and effort are better spent on other things.  I've also set myself a (somewhat arbitrary) threshold at which a position is considered "small".

As of this morning, I had a total of 11 investments which fell into the "small" category. This is simply too many. It was also worth noting that the aggregate realised and unrealised losses on the 11 small positions is, in the overall scheme of things, simply not material. Put differently, even if the small investments had produced net positive returns, I would still be going through the same exercise - evaluating and monitoring 11 investments which collectively will not have that big an effect on the portfolio is not very productive.

Accordingly, I am in the process of going through each of the 11 small investments.  This morning, I sold off  Allan International (HK:684) which was smallest of the small. This afternoon I sold my shares in Perennial International (HK: 725) at HK$0.70 each. I took a net loss of around 14% on this one. I should complete my review of the remaining nine small positions over the next week or so.

There is no such thing as a "safe" withdrawl rate

MSN Money recently carried a well written article on safe withdrawal rates. The author highlighted recent studies which called into question the "standard" 4% SWR which is often used for financial planning.  One of the studies cited suggesting that WR above 1.8%  may not be safe while the other suggested that a WR of 7% may be sustainable. 

While both studies highlighted a number of assumptions and qualifications to their analysis, for present purposes the point is that such a wide range of outcomes is possible depending on what the inputs are.  Since all of the inputs involve making assumptions or guesses about the future and experts routinely get their predictions wrong, it is very hard to do anything other than be ultra conservative when financially preparing for retirement. If I had been content to blindly rely on a 4% WR I'd be writing this post from the beach (maybe not given the weather at the moment, but you get the idea). I'd also be fretting about running out of money later in life.

So what affects the sustainability of a given withdrawal rate?  The main variables and how we intend to deal with them:

1. expenses - how much we spend and how those expenses grow (or reduce) over time either due to inflation or personal circumstances. We've monitored our expenses closely for several years now and are very comfortable with our ability to maintain our standard of living once we retire. There is a substantial safety margin here. I arbitrarily added 20% to our budget, ignored the fact that our children will eventually become independent and assumed that Mrs Traineeinvestor will retire at the same time that I do. We also have the ability to cut some expenses without much grief if we need to;

2. net return on investments - how much our investments return. My basic assumption is that our risk assets (equities and real estate) will earn a real rate of return equal to the net of everything income they generate and that over the long term that rate of return will increase at about the same rate as our expenses. This may or may not be realistic but I would be uncomfortable assuming a higher rate of return;

3. sequence of returns - risk investments do not generate "average" returns. Some years they do better and some years they do worse. Getting a few bad years at the start of a sequence can destroy a retirement plan that doesn't allow for this possibility. Since I can't predict the future any better than the next person, I plan to keep at least two years' of living expenses in cash or near cash (ccurrently we are sitting on close to five years' of expenses which is too much). This should allow us a buffer to draw against in years when the cash flows fall short of our needs;

4. investor behaviour - apart from the risk of simply selecting bad investments, there is the not insubstantial risk of panicking and selling at the bottom of a market rout (which will happen from time to time). Without the crutch of a pay cheque this risk is not immaterial. At the risk of sounding delusional, I don't expect to be consistently right in my investment decisions but when markets get to extremely levels, I hope I can resist the pressure to panic sell at the bottom or insanely buy at the top. Having a cash buffer and not being dependant on selling assets to meeting living costs is a useful tool in dealing with this risk;

5. duration - how long do our savings have to last? In our case 50+ years. For all practical purposes this might as well be forever and I have planned on the basis that the real value of our investments should not decline over any length of time (market fluctuations aside).

Given my thinking on these issues, asking "what is a "safe" WR?" is largely irrelevant - I'm simply aiming to invest in largely risk assets to offset long term inflation and spend at least 20% less than the net dividends and rent received from those assets with a meaningful cash reserve to fall back on should their be any disruptions to those cash flows.

As an aside, if I had a solid COLA'd defined benefitt pension, welfare entitlement or similar, my confidence levels would be higher as these reduce risk. But I don't and, over pensioned civil servants aside, not many other people will be able to rely on these going forward either (which is a good thing).

Allan International sold

This morning I sold the balance of my shares in Allan International (HK:684).

This was the smallest position in the portfolio, with a carrying value that was less than the annual dividends on some of my larger positions, and I reached the conclusion that in order to justify the time being spent monitoring the position I needed to put more money into this company. Given the issues with smaller and medium PRC manufacturing businesses generally and the very thin market for the company's shares I decided to sell.  Some were sold back in January and the balance today at HK$2.10 per share. Net of dividends and transaction costs I took a loss of 32% on this investment (so it is probably a good thing that it was such a small amount of money).

Monday, February 06, 2012

CKI Holdings purchased

This morning I added a few more shares in CKI Holdings (HK:1038) to the portfolio. The diversified utility company offers very defensible earnings, a solid balance sheet and a reasonable dividend yield of just over 3%. While this may not be the most exciting growth stock in the financial universe, my expectation is that the earnings and dividend will grow over time.

I paid HK$43.35 for the additional shares.

Hong Kong marathon

Yesterday I waddled may way around 42.2 kilometers of Hong Kong's highways to complete the Hong Kong marathon. While my time was at the unimpressive end of the spectrum (as always), it was a relatively good one for me and I enjoyed the experience. Switching the latter part of the race from Connaught Road to the waterfront was excellent - not only did it eliminate one over bridge, it also avoided having to run for a couple of kilometers next to heavy traffic. Overcast conditions and a nice breeze for most of the race certainly helped.

The field was more crowded than I would like but no so bad as to unduly impede running after the first few kilometers. The drink stations were well organised and plentiful but I really wish for a better sports drink - the one on offer is pretty awful.

On the downside, it was unfortunate to learn that a 26 year old competitor in the half marathon collapsed and died shortly after crossing the finishing line and two other runners are, at the time of writing, still in critical condition.

I'll be back next year.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Moving forward - revised

Back at the beginning of January I set out my main objectives for 2012. The original post was provisional by reason of the uncertainty surrounding my employment situation - I came off contract earlier this year. That issue has now been resolved and I will continue working on an open ended basis (although subject to a three month notice period) on only slightly less favourable terms than applied for the last three years.

The implications of this arrangement are:
  • I am at least morally committed to working for at least one more year
  • absent another really awful year for equities, our finances will have a sufficiently large comfort buffer to enable me to retire in early 2013 even if mrs traineeinvestor decides to stop working
  • I expect to maintain a savings rate above 50%
  • absent new investments, I will have much more cash on hand than I would feel comfortable holding for very long given the concerns of the impact of inflation
  • I will have to do more business travel than in previous years - I don't mind doing some but am not a great fan of being required to frequently travel on business. As it is only for one year, I'll just have to suck it up
Sigh.....twelve months to go.....

NWS Holdings purchased

As part of my quest to reduce the cash balance and obtain a better return on my money, I added a few more shares of NWS Holding Limited (HK:659) to the portfolio. I paid HK$12.50 for the additional shares. The trailing dividend yield is around 5.6%.

The search for yield

In an environment where interest rates for deposits and HKD bonds remain very low, are negative in real terms and are expected to remain low for some time, the quest for decent and reasonably secure yields is driving a lot of my investment decisions. To illustrate the effect of inflation, if deposits are earning 0.255% (what HSBC is currently offering) and inflation is running at 4% (an arbitrary figure), then after five years a HK$1.00 deposit will have earned about 1.3 cents thus increasing to HK$1.013 while the real value of that deposit will be around 83.2 cents. Against the background of a 50 year time frame, inflation will kill the real value of cash and other fixed income.

At the moment I have more cash than I wish to hold - at the end of January I held cash equivalent to 56.7 months of household expenses (excluding mortgage payments). Given that I am a net saver (as is mrs traineeinvestor) and dividends and interest will continue to accrue, absent any new investments the cash balance will continue to grow through to retirement (which is now scheduled for early 2013).

In terms of choices:

1. dividend paying shares are the obvious option. Even after the recent rally, there are still plenty of good companies offering earnings multiples or NAV discounts which are below long term averages and (sometimes) reasonable dividend yields

2. overseas bonds: AUD, NZD and USD bonds offer better yields than anything HKD denominated and good quality credit risks are available. For RMB, while better yields are available they generally require large minimum investments and a substantially reduced credit quality

3. real estate does not really stack up at the moment: the yields are inadequate and the HKSAR government is currently implementing a plan to push real estate prices down. If prices fall far enough, I will consider buying later in the year

4. derivatives: while derivatives have their place, generally what the banks will offer to the retail customers are not worth having

Right now, equities look the best long as I can live with the volatility.

HKR International Limited purchased

I added a few more shares in HKR International (HK:480) to the portfolio on Wednesday. I paid HK$2.88 for the additional shares.

There is no change from my previous reasoning - the shares are still cheap on a discount to NAV basis, the balance sheet looks strong and while the yield in not guaranteed, based on the company's track record I would be surprised if any cut was very significant. I particularly like the fact that the company has not diluted shareholders through placements or issues to management.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Hong Kong budget - personal implications

John Tsang's last budget contained many give aways (it would be wrong to characterise them as give backs as the majority of the additional spending is not going to the people who actually paid the taxes in the first place). Some of them have come in the general direction of the traineeinvestor household:

1. electricity subsidy of HK$1800: sure, we'll take it but this one is fundamentally wrong as it will encourage people to use more electricity (or disincentivise them from reducing electricity consumption);

2. waiving property rates up to HK$2,500 per quarter per property: we will definitely take this one. Given the low yields on property at the moment this is a very welcome tax break;

3. reduction of salaries tax up to $12,000: mrs traineeinvestor will benefit from the full $12,000. It will have no effect on me (I pay tax at the partnership level). While this is one of the few cases of the give aways actually being give backs, it is a bad idea as it takes more people out of the tax net;

4. increase in basic and dependant allowances: see #3 above;

5. extending home loan deduction from 10 years to 15 years: this will benefit mrs traineeinvestor and is welcome although it seems to be inconsistent with the government's other policies designed to force home prices lower by making them less affordable;

6. increasing maximum MPF deduction to HK$15,000: as awful as MPF is as an investment (high costs), I welcome this one. I'd actually like to see the minimum mandatory contributions raised further as compulsory savings will (hopefully) reduce the pool of people demanding taxpayer funded entitlement payments in the future (particularly important as Hong Kong's population ages).

But where o where is there money being spent to clean the air and address the acute shortage of places in our schools for international students?

Hong Kong budget - the rise of entitlement

Not unexpectedly, the 2012-2013 HKSAR budget provided numerous give aways to just about very sector of Hong Kong's society with the middle class perhaps benefiting most.

However, the last several years have produced a distinctly worrying trend with government expenditure rising far more rapidly than revenues or GDP growth generally. This is simply not sustainable and it is long past time that the government stopped pandering to political demands and special interests (such as the grossly overpaid civil servants) and taking steps to reduce the number of people taking from the pot of taxpayer funded revenue. This is the root cause of the economic issues which are plaguing the United States and much of Western Europe - too many people taking too much by way of entitlements out of the economic pot. Its been shown to be unsustainable in those countries (and many other places historically) and there is no reason why Hong Kong should be any different.

Given the extreme imbalance between taxpayers and entitlement recipients in Hong Kong, it would be a major cause of concern for Hong Kong to be granted greater democracy - the political competition to promise higher entitlement payments is already out of control and it would be of huge concern if continued fiscal mismanagement were to result in higher taxes. At the end of the day, Hong Kong has just two competitive advantages over our Asian rivals - cultural and political proximity to China and a competitively low tax regime. The former will erode over time as China continues to open up and the latter is the only thing that truely distinguishes us from places like Singapore (where the quality of life is unquestionably higher). In this context, its also worth bearing in mind that Hong Kong's tax base is also relatively narrow and there is an unknown but assuredly significant portion of the taxpayers who could easily redomicle themselves to places with cleaner air (something the HKSAR government has repeatedly demonstrated it has no interest in dealing with), cheaper and better properties and other lifestyle advantages.

As a final thought on Hong Kong's growing entitlement problem, it is fortunate the the HKD/USD peg forces the government to maintain sufficiently large reserves to deter speculative attacks (as were seen during the Asian crisis).

In short, the budget was the latest in a series of budgets that do no more than attempt to make the government popular at the expense of placing Hong Kong's future in a more vulnerable state. The only vision shown is that of a financial secretary looking forward to reading the headlines the day after.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Hong Kong property prices expected to fall further

The lead article in this morning's Property Post painted a bearish picture for the future direction of Hong Kong property prices with increased supply (up about 10% this year from last year) and reduced demand from mainland immigrants and investors pointing to a further decline.  One of the analysts was quoted as saying that prices could fall by around 15%.

While a further decline is expected, and 15% does not sound an unreasonable guess, it is still a guess.  I have no idea either where bottom of the cycle valuations will end up or how long it will take us to get there.  Historically people have under estimated the size of the decline during the early stages of the downturn and gone to the other extreme and forecast something of an economic apocalypse near the bottom of the decline.

For my part, I intend to hold my current properties through the cycle (its been a long time since I purchased a property) and will consider adding to the portfolio if prices drop to the point where yields become attractive again.  If this happens before I retire, I will take out the biggest mortgage I can get to fund a purchase.  If not, then the fact that I will not have employment based income may make it hard to get a loan.

Off topic: recent readings

In the past, I've posted reviews of books that were vaguely finance related and, more recently, some non-finance related books (here here and here).  Going forward, I intend to keep a (loose) record of most of the stuff I am reading (other than work related materials which take up quite a bit of time).  The most recent things read:
  • Paper, Scissors, Stone: this is a volume of poetry by Kit Fan which won the HKU International Poetry prize for 2010.  While poetry is something I blow hot and cold about (I really struggled with the Wasteland, and that was just the bits that were written in English), I did find some of the language quite mesmerising
  • The Sense of an Ending: Julian Barnes won the Man Booker prize for 2011 for this story about a man looking back on his life, specifically his relationships with a small group of friends and one former girlfriend in particular.  I hope when I reach the age of his protagonist, I will have better things to do with my remaining time.  I was surprised at how short the book was
  • The Birth of Plenty: William Bernstein's explanation for why some countries become and stay wealthy and others do not.  A more detailed review is here
  • The Hunger Games Trilogy:  Suzzane Collins very successful post-apocalyptic novels for young adults.  The first book was the best of the three
  • Bad Science: Ben Goldacre's denunciation of people who peddle rubbish dressed up as good science.  Review is here
I've also made a start on Ulysses - quite frankly, it's very heavy going and hard to follow.  This one is probably going to take a few months to get through in small doses.