How To Build Your Investment Portfolio (And How I Built Mine)

How To Build Your Investment Portfolio (And How I Built Mine)

An investment portfolio is the mix of things you invest money in. And it’s usually a mix of things because you don’t want all your money stuck in just one thing. For example, if all you invest in is Snapchat shares, guess what happens to your wealth when Kylie Jenner tweets something bad and 51% of the world decides to use Instagram instead?

But how do you decide what goes into your mix of investments?

I recently ran a survey among readers for what you wanted me to write about next. The winner by far was: “How to build your investment portfolio.” So I know there’s a lot of demand out there for investment knowledge. I know it’s important to you guys, because in today’s day and age — it’s so hard to make good money anymore right?

So let’s get straight to it. In this article we’ll look at some common strategies for building investment portfolios. Finally, as a case study, we’ll look at mine; how I’ve built my investment portfolio over time.

But before we dive into technical “how many percent bonds, how many percent stocks?” questions, let’s first take a step back and talk about why investing can (and should) be vastly different for different people.

Investing is a very personal thing

In an ideal world, we’d all make tons of money from our investments and never lose. The markets would go up forever and we’d sell our RM 58.30 PETRONAS Gas stocks to buy Ferraris.

Alas, the world doesn’t work this way. The markets go up and down, and there’ll always be winners and losers. That’s just capitalism.

But perhaps the more interesting thing is that not everyone wants to drive a Ferrari. Some people would rather go on a food trip to Bangkok. Likewise, most people probably don’t find joy in buying Oil & Gas stocks. Some people would rather invest their money in properties.

So the first thing to understand about investment portfolios is that it’s gonna be different for everyone. Let that message sink in for a while. The 25-year-old management trainee will invest differently from the 40-year-old housewife. And even two 30-year-old accountants might have completely different portfolios.

The great thing is that you get to decide. And you decide based on mainly two things…

Goals and “risk vs reward”

What do you want to achieve by investing your hard-earned money? Or rather, what are your financial goals? For example, common goals for young people are saving for your future child’s education, and funding your retirement.

And depending on your goals, the way you invest will be very different. Planning for three kids who’ll go to international schools is different from planning for a single kid who’ll go to government school. Likewise, planning to retire at 60 in a seaside village is worlds apart from a Jho-Low-style retirement in a yacht off the coast of Bali.

Which brings me to a quote I love:

“If you want success, figure out the price, then pay it.”
Thomas Oppong

We could all set ambitious goals, but how much are you willing to sacrifice to achieve them?

And the follow-on money question: How much risk are you willing to live with, to get the rewards that you want?

Because if you want higher returns, you’re gonna have to get comfortable with higher risk (i.e. higher chance of losing your money). We’ve all heard of high-risk investors losing their health — and in some tragic cases, their lives — just because they couldn’t handle the stress.

On the other hand, if you want very little risk, your investments are gonna take a really long time to grow. That’s just the law of nature, and despite what 100 ugly skim-cepat-kaya gurus may tell you, there’s no “hack” around it.

Now as your brain contemplates the above philosophical questions, allow me to introduce some common ways to design your investment portfolio.

1. Traditional strategy: the stocks-bonds ratio

The classic way of designing an investment portfolio is the stocks-bonds ratio. In a nutshell, you decide how many percent of your investments should be in stocks, and how many percent should be in bonds.

BTW, when I say “investment portfolio,” I mean money that you set apart to grow. This doesn’t include “necessities” like your emergency savings (aim for: six months of monthly expenses here) and rent/loans you pay for your home.

So how many percent stocks and how many percent bonds?

120 – [your age] = Percentage of investments in stocks

Let’s say you’re 35 years old. 120 – 35 = 85. So according to this calculation, you should have: 85% invested in stocks, and 15% in bonds.

To further illustrate this:

  • Age 25: Stocks 95%, Bonds 5%
  • Age 35: Stocks 85%, Bonds 15%
  • Age 45: Stocks 75%, Bonds 25%
  • Age 55: Stocks 65%, Bonds 35%
  • Age 65: Stocks 55%, Bonds 45%

The stocks-bonds ratio is actually an oversimplified principle derived from Modern Portfolio Theory, work which won Harry Markowitz the 1990 Nobel Prize in Economics.

1A. Going deeper into stocks-bonds

Let’s dive a little deeper now. For example, maybe your target is 80% stocks and 20% bonds. But what stocks and what bonds?

Depending on how hardcore you are, you could end up with a simple and practical portfolio using one ETF and one bond fund:

(Caution: The stocks-bond ratio is based on the behavior of the USA stock market. I’d caution against taking it and literally throwing 85% of your investments into the Malaysian stock market. Ours is a young, emerging market — the USA is a mature one.)

Or, you could end up with a monster like:

  • 10% USA blue chip stocks
  • 10% USA tech stocks
  • 10% Asian blue chip stocks
  • 10% Asian value stocks
  • 10% Asian REITs
  • 10% Malaysian blue chip stocks
  • 10% Malaysian value stocks
  • 10% Malaysian growth stocks
  • 10% Southeast Asian bonds
  • 10% Malaysian bonds

Who has time to manage a portfolio like that though? Especially if you’re picking individual stocks. If the above scares you, you’re gonna like Section 2…

(p.s. Check out some nice variations to the stocks-bonds ratio by Vanguard and Financial Samurai.)

Note that in recent years, there have been more and more voices criticizing Modern Portfolio Theory, saying it’s not applicable in our modern world anymore, as compared to say the 1970s to 1980s.

I’m not smart enough to decide whether Nassim Taleb or Harry Markowitz is right, but I am trying to learn from both sides of the argument. We’ll explore my personal investment portfolio in more detail in Section 3.

2. The advisor strategy

In this strategy, you outsource your investment decisions to a personal finance advisor. Now if you’ve been reading my articles for a while, you know I like to DIY my money decisions. So this isn’t my preferred way of doing things.

But let’s say you’re an Insta influencer/YouTube star with huge earnings; and you don’t care about investment at all. (You really should.) What if you really don’t give a f*ck, and are only interested in where’s the next beach party? Well, if you don’t wanna go bankrupt in a few years, the best move you could make is to hire a smart person to manage your finances.

Sound crazy? Well, some people really don’t have time to manage small details. I’m looking at you highly-paid professionals in the corporate world too. Plus I know how investment feels really daunting for many people — they’d rather not do it themselves. I’d love for you to study money the way I do, but if you don’t want to, maybe hire someone who’s capable?

There’s also another way. And it’s really cool too.

2A. An advisor is not necessarily human

The good news is that robo-advisors are already on the horizon. These are apps/websites that use artificial intelligence to help you make investment decisions.

Remember the traditional stocks-bonds ratio above? Take that, mix in some other cool investment theories, program it into AI, add a pinch of user-friendliness, and there you have it: advice on how to invest, designed for the average person on the street. And it’s not just advice, robo-advisors literally accept money from you and do the nitty-gritty work of actually investing the money.

This is really cool, but the cooler thing might be this: Because it relies heavily on computers/AI, robo-advisory makes things a lot cheaper for you, the end consumer.

For example, most people are already somewhat familiar with unit trusts. Well, expensive unit trusts in this country charge sales fees of 5% and have annual fees of about 1.5%. Expect robo-advisors to have 0% sales fees, and annual fees between 0.2 to 0.8%. (That’s at least 2-3 times cheaper even before you count the sales fees.)

The expectation is that we’ll have a few robo-advisors launched by end 2018 right here in Malaysia. (Maybe we’ll see some of the popular Singapore-based ones come over.)

Personally, I’m eagerly anticipating this. I’ll likely be moving a chunk of my investments into robo-advisory.

3. How I built my investment portfolio

The first investment my risk-averse mother ever bought for me was something called Amanah Saham Wawasan 2020. We’re two years away from 2020 and I still have those funds. It’s averaged 6-10% annual returns (and grown 5x) over the past 22 years.

My father is a risk taker and used to play the stock market. One day he sold a stock that’d gone up and bought me my first guitar. 21 years later, I still play at private events sometimes. Thank you Mom and Dad for my first investments.

I believe growing up with parents who had different opinions about money really helped shape the way I invest today. I’m still very careful with my money, but given the right circumstances, I understand the potential of a high-risk investment.

Which is why my investment portfolio looks different from what a traditional finance advisor might recommend. And it looks like this:

3A. Mr-Stingy’s investment portfolio

About 80% of my investments are what I’d call “safe”:

  • EPF: 70.7%
  • Amanah Saham: 3.3%
  • Bond Unit Trusts: 3.3%
  • Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs): 0.1%
  • Insurance-Linked Unit Trusts: 3.3%

The Malaysian Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) has declared yearly dividends between 5% to 8.5% every year over the past 50 years. Of course, past returns don’t guarantee what happens in the future — but a little-known fact is by law, the EPF needs to pay yearly dividends of at least 2.5%. It’s as “safe” as you can get in Malaysia. Similarly, fixed-price Amanah Saham funds have never failed to disappoint over the past few decades.

Bond unit trusts and REITs are my other “safe” investments. Though definitely not EPF/Amanah Saham bulletproof, I’m expecting these investments to give me steady dividends over the long run — to protect my capital and fight inflation.

Lastly, I have some money in insurance-linked unit trusts. Like most people my age, I buy investment-linked insurance plans, and a portion of this automatically gets invested into unit trusts.

When I bought these plans, I wanted to force myself to save money, and have some backup in case one day I’m broke and can’t pay for insurance. It’s not the cheapest way of investing (high sales fees!) though, so it’s something I’m reconsidering.

Whats all the high risk stuff?

Of course, the 20% is where it gets interesting. These are investments where I’m really hoping to make money:

  • Private Retirement Scheme (PRS) – Equity (2.9%)
  • P2P Lending (0.1%)
  • Silver (0.6%)
  • Bitcoin & Cryptocurrencies (13.1%)
  • Equity in mr-stingy LLP (2.6%)

My PRS money is invested in equities (stocks) in the Asia Pacific region. Since it’s gonna be decades before I retire, I figure I can afford the higher risk. Even if it goes down at some point, there’s enough time for it to go back up.

Next, Peer-to-peer lending is a really cool new investment. You can get around 15% returns per year, and the default rate (where the borrower can’t pay you back) is really low. The reason I don’t have more here is because I only recently tried it out, and I’m still very distracted by cryptocurrencies.

On to silver, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies — my “hedges” in case the financial system as we know it today goes down in flames. Okay, being dramatic here — but these are “backup” if/when the economy crashes next. Also, particularly with Bitcoin, I sincerely believe there’s a chance it still grows 10x or maybe even 20x. Note that even with the recent bloody crash in cryptocurrency prices, I’m still up 53% in less than 2 years in crypto.

Finally, I have a bit of money invested in my own business, mr-stingy LLP. Yeah, I do it for the love, but love costs money too right?

3B. What do you call Mr-Stingy’s strategy?

Actually, I never planned for my portfolio to be 80% safe and 20% risky. It’s really only this way because for most of my life, I’ve been a conservative investor. Only in recent years have I tried riskier stuff, after being confident I had enough safe assets.

Nassim Taleb writes about investing like a barbell — having lots of safe assets on one side, balanced by a couple of risky assets that could really grow huge. I can’t claim to have followed his strategy exactly, but it’s probably the closest thing to an “investing philosophy” I believe in.

The rationale behind barbells is clear: having most of my investments in safe stuff gives me peace of mind. It gives me confidence that even in the worst economic conditions, I’ll be okay. And the little I have in risky stuff? Well, even if it crashes to zero, I’ll still be fine. But if just one of those investments goes 10x or 20x, that’ll be a huge bonus.

Of course, my investment portfolio is far from perfect. It has a lot of baggage, accumulated from years where I didn’t know better. For example, I always promote passive, low-cost investing (like Warren Buffett). But I still have money in expensive unit trusts. Eventually though, I’m aiming to switch to more-efficient funds like ETFs.

I’ve also probably got too much invested in Malaysian ringgit. When robo-advisors launch here, I’d like to move more into USD assets.

Am I suggesting you should invest like I do? No. But I hope you’ll put as much thought as possible into planning your own portfolio. And in case you’re feeling overwhelmed by all this information, don’t be discouraged — we’re all trying to figure this out as we go along.

What works for you?

I hope the above perspectives have given you some things to think about. Again, as I mentioned at the start, investing is a deeply personal thing, so I’m not suggesting you invest like me, or directly apply the stocks-bonds ratio. It’s much better for you to think about what we’ve discussed, and then make your own decisions.

I also wanna point out a curious human trait. Back when I first started writing, I believed in the common fallacy that if you just give people better information, they’ll make better decisions.

Well it turns out humans often don’t make decisions rationally. So while I’ll never apologize for writing in-depth 3,000-word articles, I also realize that most people aren’t just gonna read something and suddenly make better decisions.

Which makes me believe that for most people, automating your investments via a robo-advisor makes the most sense. It makes investing cheap, simple, fast, and can be easily customized according to your preferences. You don’t have to spend too much time or effort, and will be able to sleep easily at night.

But in case you’re in the small minority who really likes to get into deep investment things like the Efficient Frontier and 200-day EMAs, allow me to propose a toast to you with my finest virtual glass. In this world of superficial distractions and instant gratification, people who choose the hard route of learning difficult things never fail to inspire me. I’m sure if we ever meet in person, we’ll have lots to talk about.

Until then, may your investments be fruitful.

Aaron Tang is the founder of He writes about optimising time, money, and relationships – to make the most out of life.

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