I’m one of those 90s kids who loves Pokémon. I watched the anime – 21 seasons of it. I once paid the princely sum of SGD 2 for a secondhand guidebook to Pokémon Emerald, whose battery-drained cartridge still lies in a Gameboy beneath my bed (RIP). I could probably tell you the names of every Pocket Monster up till the latest release.
But my love of the hit Japanese franchise is nothing compared to Ronald Chiam’s.
The 29-year-old millennial fanboy, who has collected Pokémon trading cards since he was in primary school, treats it both as a hobby from which he derives unending fulfillment, and an honest-to-goodness investment.
Like with stocks, Pokémon card traders buy and sell cards on the secondary market, with the value fluctuating according to demand.
Chiam spent six-figures on his card portfolio, and has made a respectable 170% return on the sale of SGD 50,000 (USD 37,147) worth of cards in the past five years. He mainly collects Japanese language cards from exclusive launches, as he believes their scarcity guarantees demand.
‘It’s Like Cryptocurrency‘
It’s not that Chiam doesn’t believe in stocks. He’s a former data analyst for Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC and owns, among other things, Tesla shares and Bitcoin. But the artwork on the cards is what gets him every time.
“From a young age, the idea of collecting cards with really beautiful artwork has always appealed to me. I don’t actually play the game,” he laughs. “If a card has nice art – especially by longtime illustrators like Mitsuhiro Arita, who drew the ‘holy grail’ of Pokémon cards, the Base Set Charizard – prices will be higher, because people want it more.”
“If you buy stocks, they’re just numbers on a screen. You can’t enjoy them or share them with others, but cards are a physical item you can touch,” he says.
Despite liking Pokémon, I can’t wrap my head around treating a children’s toy as a serious financial asset. Even if I could, there’s still the problem of how to pick winners from the millions of cards and artworks out there.
Chiam’s understanding when I tell him my thoughts.
“My parents and friends thought I was crazy to continue this childish hobby,” he admits. “Investing in an unregulated asset is very risky. It’s like cryptocurrency – there’s high price volatility, so if you don’t have a good understanding of how the market works, you’ll get burned.”
Most of his free time is spent trawling online card sites for good buys, scrolling card collectors’ IG accounts, comparing releases with fellow fans in FB groups, paying for cards to be professionally graded and sealed, and religiously monitoring last transacted prices online, since price information is notoriously fragmented.
In fact, sick of manually tracking the value of his buys, he’s now coding up a website that’ll automatically generate an estimated value of a collector’s card portfolio.
Listening to Chiam wax lyrical about various rarities of cards, and the numerous strategies to obtain good ones (waiting in line for new releases at the Pokémon Centre in Jewel Changi Airport, buying entire packs second hand, nabbing a good deal on Carousell), it’s clear that the successful investors of this alternative asset class are probably the superfans: people like Chiam, who genuinely like the hobby and lavish time and effort on it.
It reminds me of that oft-quoted advice: do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. Reading annual reports and calculating price-to-book values often feel like a horrendous chore necessary to partake in the grown-up ritual of buying stocks, but for Pokémon card investors, rigorous “market research” is, in fact, deeply enjoyable.
Says Chiam: “Being able to turn a childhood hobby into an asset that offers tangible returns is, quite simply, a lot more fun than doing equity analysis.”
Buy What You Like
By this point, I’ve realised that knowledge of Pokémon (the franchise) doesn’t equate to understanding its card market. Even my decent interest levels are hardly enough to compete with the fanatic passion of hardcore collectors – and that’s exactly who you’ll be up against when you start investing.
Chiam doesn’t say it, but it’s clear passion is critical to staying invested. His genuine love for the cards shines out of his face as he leafed through six fat binders, pausing to sigh lovingly at a page of 25 Charizards, each one no different from the last.
“At the end of the day, a card is just a piece of paper, inherently worthless. But I’d still buy and keep them anyway, even if one day their value was all wiped out,” he says.
Can someone clever make a quick buck from card trading without any interest in Pokémon itself, I ask?
He shoots me a confused look.
“Why would they want to? Theoretically they could profit, but these cards are highly illiquid, and to sell them you’d have to go to the trouble to source for a buyer for each one.”
“There was a point I was also caught up in making a return – the more money was involved, the more the fun of opening a pack faded away, and I didn’t want to keep deciding based on resale value,” he says. “These days, I just buy what I like.”
By the end of our interview I’m sufficiently convinced that love of the hobby is the key factor to success – but it’s also a double edged sword. Trading in an asset that straddles beloved possession and risky investment muddies the judgement when it’s time to buy or sell – even at a profit.
Case in point: unlike his stocks, Chiam’s having trouble letting go of his cards, especially those whose art he really likes.
“To be honest, I don’t really want to sell,” he admits. “I genuinely like them, so as long as I’m still interested in Pokémon, I want to hold on.”