Friday, December 19, 2008

The Biggest Mistake Today

There are a lot of hoary old clichés about learning from mistakes. Starting roughly at the time when we enter school, we're subjected to preaching about how one should learn from one's mistakes or that one should learn from others' mistakes or even that one can't succeed without making mistakes and so on and so forth. We are always told that mistakes make excellent teachers. All this may be irritating but it's also true, at least in financial matters. 

For the last few years, we've all gotten used to a situation where it felt as if those mistakes didn't matter. All types of investments were doing well, all kind of assets were rising in value and most people's real (non-investment) earnings were rising rapidly too. If you had money in a bottom-quartile mutual fund, you still made good returns. It just happened to be less than you would have made otherwise. If you had neglected to think of asset allocation and all your money was in risky mid-cap stocks and sector funds then that were OK too–you got better returns than any safe strategy would have got you. Even if you were committing the ultimate sin of borrowing to invest–perhaps in a piece of land–that was OK too because the money was cheap and the returns plentiful.

Unfortunately, those times are gone now and its time to focus on correcting mistakes. It's often said that to save wisely and invest well, one doesn't really have to do any big thing right. Instead, all that is needed is to avoid making mistakes. And so, as these bad times threaten to turn into worst ones, it may be a good idea for all of us to focus on the financial mistakes we've made.  

There's a deeper mistake that has driven the investors' behavior on the stock markets. And this nothing but the same old bogey, short-termism. A year ago, everyone was pouring money into stocks because they wanted to catch every bit of gains that could be had. As those gains turned into losses, investors ran away and pulled out as much money as possible out of stocks. Now, no matter what happens, they are not going to invest till… well, I don't know till when. On the surface, this seems like sensible behavior. The markets have turned negative, so people have pulled out.

In reality, it's anything but. What we were doing a year ago was also short-termism, and what we are doing now is also short-termism. It is true that business prospects around the world appear to be bleak. However, it is also true that stocks already have a fair bit of bleakness priced into them. Sooner or later, things will turn around, and specific parts of the markets will turn around quicker than others. When this will start happening is clearly uncertain. However, the whole point of making money on the stock markets is to have a long-term view so that you can buy when everything is down in the dumps and available dirt cheap. I'm not saying that its time to rush back in, but continuing with regularly investing, whether its through a SIP plan or otherwise is the right approach. Those who have stopped investing in this mania are not doing the right thing.

If this is not the time to start doing that, then it will never be!!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Profit from the Great Panic of 2008

Now is possibly the most stressful situation that Indian equity investors have ever faced. 

Let's take a look at what we've said in the past, and how the Great Panic of 2008 reinforces the principles behind our advice. Here's a summary of those unchanging principles. 

- Investors should not need to time the market. Therefore, the only valid investing approach is one that is always the same, regardless of market conditions.

- At any point of time, all the money that you need within three to five years should be in fixed income assets.

- Long-term money should be allocated between fixed income and equity depending on your ability to take temporary losses.

- Whenever the balance of this allocation changes because one asset type has earned more than the other sell one and buy the other to restore the balance.

- Never invest large lumps of money in equity. Do it gradually, SIP style. 

Any investor who has followed this advice is sitting pretty today, largely unaffected by the Great Panic. The market value of your investments may be down today, but since you don't need any of it for many years to come, that doesn't matter. Long before you'll need the money; it would have had a chance to start growing again.

Today, the natural response of many investors to what we're saying is that right now, they've lost money. They say, “The returns may come back in the future, but what about the losses that I've made today". Those who say this are right in their arithmetic, but completely wrong in their assumptions. The only way to avoid the occasional crash is to be able to see the future, and if you could see into the future then you wouldn't be reading this any way. The whole point of investment approach that we are advocating is that it eliminates the need to see into the future. 

The Past Proves the Point  

The actual track record of the past decade shows that this approach works quite well. If you had started investing Rs 20,000 a month in a Sensex-based index fund in early 1997 and had continued to do so without regard to the ups and downs of the market, then today your rate of return would have stood at 14 per cent per annum. In all, you would have gradually put in Rs 28.6 lakh and these investments would have stood at Rs 66 lakh today, after the crash.

During this period, many mutual funds have comfortably beaten the Sensex so the Rs 66 lakh is a rather conservative figure. In a median fund, the 10 years would have seen your nest egg reach about Rs 1.04 crore. And this, during a decade which has witnessed two huge market crashes!  

That's after absorbing the hit of the worst panic that anyone has ever seen, when the market is at a long-term low point. Once any kind of recovery commences, the value is very likely to shoot up. If this isn't a perfect demonstration for the value of our slow-and steady way, then nothing can be.  

Over such a long period, the so-called 'safe' fixed-income avenues do so much worse than supposedly 'unsafe' equity, that the there's no contest at all. Over this same period, you could have earned an average of no more than around 8 per cent per annum in fixed income investments. The same inputs would leave you with just about Rs 44 lakh, which doesn't cover even the inflation rate adequately.

The moral of the story: Despite the crashes, equity is the far safer option over the long run.  

The real danger to your financial well-being is not market crashes, but from the insidious affect of inflation

Crashes are Your Friends

In the equity markets, you make more money not despite the crashes, but because of the crashes. Let's modify the above story with the assumption that the post-tech crash of 2000-2001 never happened. The way that crash actually happened, the Sensex reached a peak of about 5,900 in February 2000. It then crashed and went as low as about 2,600 in September 2001. It then started rising and reached the previous peak of ~6,190 again only in January 2004. 

Let's assume that the crash never happened. The Sensex reached 5,600 in March 2000 and then stayed at that level till October 2004. If that had happened, then your Rs 20,000 a month would be worth Rs 55 lakh instead of Rs 66 lakh! That's right. For the long term investor, the crash of 2000 was worth a lot of money.

How did you make more money because the crash? The answer is obvious to anyone who understands the basic arithmetic of what's happening here. The crash enabled you to buy cheap and thus eventually raised your total returns. If you are investing steadily for the long-term, then intermittent crashes help you make more money, not less.  

And that is how you will eventually profit from the Great Panic of 2008. Stocks are now cheap, and are probably going to get cheaper. The longer and deeper this crash, the more money you will eventually make. If you know what's good for you, you should be praying that the Sensex falls to maybe 6000 or 7000 and then stays there for a few months or years before coming to life again. 

And that's the secret of equity investing, the real moral of the story: For the long-term investor, equity is not good despite the occasional crash. It's good precisely because it crashes. 

Volatility is your friend. Volatility is what will make you rich.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Crash is welcome!

This Crash Is Welcome

 If there is one question that everyone wants answered, it is regarding the plan of action in such market turmoil. How does one get through this crisis?  

Actually, there are just two avenues to explore. 

First, you can sell your investments and sit on cash or channelize the money into fixed return instruments. Not only is this not very tax efficient (the returns from fixed income instruments are taxed) but you also lose capital since you are selling at very low rates.

Cashing out closer to the bottom is disaster from an investment point of view. Even if you go ahead, you will not know when to begin reinvesting down the road. The odds are against you when you attempt market timing. 

Your second option, and definitely the most preferable route, is to stick with your long term plan since this crash will actually benefit you. Because in the equity market, you make money not despite the crashes but because of the crashes. 

Let’s look at the tech boom. The Sensex touched around 5900 in February 2000 before sinking to 2600 in September 2001. It touched 6000 only in January 2004.

Now let’s assume that the crash never happened. The Sensex reached 5600 in March 2000 and stayed at that level till October 2004.

If you had started investing Rs 20,000/month in a Sensex-based index fund in early 1997 and continued all through, your investments would have been worth Rs 55 lakh (without the crash) instead of Rs 66 lakh (with the crash). The reason? The crash enabled the investor to buy cheap and thus eventually raise total returns.

If you are investing steadily for the long term, then intermittent crashes help you make more money, not less. Because when bubbles correct, they usually overcorrect so that the market is selling well below fair value. So that’s the time to go buying, not selling!!!


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Kya Kare??

What to do in Today's Market 

Inflation has crossed 12 per cent. Interest rates are rising. Individuals with home loans are struggling to cope with the higher Equated Monthly Installments (EMIs) and simultaneously deal with inflation.

In the stock market, the bulls are constrained by concerns over the macro-economic scenario domestically, the grim global scenario, persistent Foreign Institutional Investor (FII) outflows and the possibility of another round of monetary tightening. That does not mean the bears have a free hand. The correction in commodities, especially crude, provides ample ammunition for the bulls to conduct a short-term rally.

Investors who flocked to gold as the 'safe asset' were disappointed at the way the price dropped in August. Real estate rates too have dropped and by all indications will continue to fall. No asset seems to be a safe haven anymore.

The only asset that beckons is debt with interest rates rising. But would it make sense for an investor to move into debt? While this is a good time to reassess one's portfolio, it would not be wise to simply rush to income funds, Fixed Maturity Plans (FMPs) or fixed deposits. Read on to figure out how to make the best in such a bleak market environment. 

Don't let market conditions determine your asset allocation

Unfortunately, for most investors, it is often the bull or bear run that will determine their preference for a particular asset. During a bull run, they will all flock to equities and when the market crashes, everyone is suddenly paralyzed by market uncertainty and fear. Which is really ironical, since the risk of losing money at 13,000 is much less than when the Sensex is at 20,000. In 2002, when the Sensex was around 3,200 levels, inflows into equity mutual funds were Rs 4,517 crore. In 2007, when the Sensex was in the range of 14,000 to 20,000, inflows into equity mutual funds totalled Rs 1,07,189 crore.* Investors were far more willing to buy equities at higher rather than lower prices!

Right now, when stocks are getting whipsawed and interest rates appear seductive, the instinctive reaction is to run to a safer haven. But abandoning equities now and moving to debt and cash would be a mistake. Those who under invest in stocks are left flat-footed when the market recovers. And equities, as an asset, must have a place in your portfolio. Irrespective of the state the market is in.

In fact, if your equity holdings have been beaten down substantially, then you could make some refinements to your portfolio. Check to see by how much your portfolio has deviated from your predetermined allocation. If your equity allocation has fallen substantially, you should focus on increasing it. Stay focussed on your strategy. Not on the market. 

Now is a good time to consider equity

It would be wise to look at the experience of renowned investor, the late Sir John Templeton. His investing mantra was simple: Buy at the point of maximum pessimism. In other words, as an investor, he relished adversity.

A typical buy-and-hold investor, Templeton identified stocks that were trading below what he estimated to be their actual worth. He then was prepared to wait till the market recognized the value of the stock and the price corrected. In reality, it is always the opposite that takes place. As the market peaks, almost anything is touted as a "can't miss" investment or fund. Consequently, traditional measures of an asset's worth go by the wayside. Instead of running to the hills, investors run in droves to the market. They buy for no other reason than the belief that the investment would go up. When the market tumbles, as it did this year, investors run to debt or hold cash.

The late Shelby Cullom Davis, a New York investment banker, former U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and well known value investor, once said, "You make most of your money during a bear market; you just don't realise it at the time." Wise words for an investor to keep in mind! 

Not every beaten down stock or sector is worth buying

In the phenomenal bull run over the past few years, risk has almost been an afterthought as investors plunged headlong into growth stocks and took heavy sector bets. Now the winning formula is probably a more conservative mix that's mindful of heightened volatility. Investors would do well to gravitate towards large and stable companies that have a better chance of weathering a market storm.

But of course, that does not mean there aren't any great stocks in smaller market caps.

What we are saying is that nothing will substitute smart, bottom-up stock selection.

Ditto for sectors. Between January 8 and July 15, 2008, the sectors that got hammered were real estate, construction, power, capital goods and banking. But that does not mean you should run away from them. Neither does it indicate that you should mindless shop for stocks within these sectors. Only if you find good undervalued picks, go ahead and buy them.

But, if you have not done your homework on investing in a stock, you should not be investing in it.

And, don't just dump your fund if it has performed miserably. Check its performance regularly with its peers. Keep track of the portfolio to see if the fund manager is making any significant changes. 

Don't try to time the market

It's difficult to predict when a bull run will peak. By the same measure, it is impossible to call the bottom. All bull and bear markets will exhibit periods that look like reversals, but are just momentary before the bull or bear regains control.

There are three things you should be absolutely clear about.

  1. The first is that you do not know when it is "safe" to get into equity. No one knows that. No one knows when the bull run is ready to resume its pace.
  2. The second is the wrong assumption that it is alright to change your asset allocation guidelines as and when it pleases you, with no regard to a change in your personal situation but with sole reference to the market situation.
  3. The third is that your gut-level feel about the end being near is a good recipe for disastrous investment decisions. 

If you have been investing via a Systematic Investment Plan (SIP), please continue. There is no reason why you should stop. If you have not been investing via a SIP, please start.

Don't try to invest lump sums when you think the market is at a low. 

The same goes for timing the cycles of other assets. When equities are down, investors tend to find solace in what's perceived as "safer" - recently that was gold. When the price fell recently, they were a dismayed lot. If you do not have a valid reason for investing in a particular investment or asset, stay away. 

You will be rewarded for staying cool

It's not easy to step back for perspective when you are gasping for air as your portfolio value plummets. But any sensible long-term investor will tell you that bear markets are setting up the next bull market. They are also keenly aware that bull markets don't run forever.

So it is only natural that in a volatile market investors should expect some short-term losses in their portfolios. Even a great company's stock can get banged around in a tough market. But that does not make you a loser (though you may look like one). While the old "buy and hold" mantra may seem like cold comfort at times like this, rest assured that it has a better long-term record than market-timing.

Once again we reiterate our earlier point. Now is a good time to get into equity and you will be rewarded if you have a time frame of at least three years. With the near 30 per cent fall in the market from January 2008, Forward P/Es have fallen sharply and are now at reasonable levels. India's Fwd P/E is now 14.2x (July 2008), down from 20.4x (January 2008). Over the past 20 years (July 31, 1988 -July 31, 2008), equities, as measured by the Sensex, have given investors a return of 17.16 per cent per annum* inspite of the Kargil, famines, change in governments, assassinations etc.  Do we any reasons to believe that the next 20 years will be any different? The problem is not with the asset class but with the approach to equities and the investing strategy of individuals. 

This too shall pass!

However bleak the scene appears, it is not here to stay forever. Bargain valuations are available only in such times. But the key is to understand whether "such" times are temporary or long lasting.

The current bearish phase has been the result of the spike in the price of crude and steel and commodities. The result was inflation, higher interest rates and the worsening of the fiscal deficit. Over time, these issues will be resolved. But as long as fundamentals remain strong, we have nothing to fear. If the fundamentals deteriorate significantly, the reverse will take place. The structure of the economy, the strong corporate balance sheet, increasing household income without too much debt on their books, rising consumption levels, high savings rate - will ensure that the slowdown in India is not severe.

Equities have fallen before and they will fall again. The last bull run ended in March 2000.

The three-year bear market that followed was pushed by the tragedy of 9/11 and a recession. Finally, the market bottomed out in October 2002. From then on, it scaled impressive heights. Along the way, there have been some significant dips followed by a continuation of upward pressure. But in the end, companies with good fundamentals will weather the storms that sweep the market and the economy.

The lesson here is straightforward. Stocks are excellent long-term investments, but dangerous short-term bets.


*These figures have been provided by HDFC Mutual Fund.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Over the last few days, the standard investing punditry that is available on business TV and newspapers has turned fiercely negative. The consensus view is that we're doomed. The line-up of problems that are going to ruin us all is impressive indeed. Not only is the inflation rate rising, but so are inflationary expectations and that's supposed to be worse. The government seems set to transition from a principle-driven ally that was blackmailing it to an unprincipled ally that will blackmail it. Growth is slowing down. There is a genuine fear in the air.

Among people who to invest in equities and equity-based mutual funds, the natural question to ask is what they should do now. In response, the best thing I can think of is to quote the great investor Warren Buffett. Buffett is fond of saying that one should be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful. It sound like such an overly cute thing to say that you may feel that it's good only for printing on inspirational posters but actually, like everything else that Buffett says, it's deeper than it looks.

Clearly, others are fearful now. Does that mean that it's time to be greedy? It probably is. In a recent interview he said something very interesting in response to a question about what investors should do now that stocks have started declining. Here's what he said. “The answer is you don't want investors to think that what they read today is important in terms of their investment strategy. Their investment strategy should factor in that (a) if you knew what was going to happen in the economy, you still wouldn't necessarily know what was going to happen in the stock market. And (b) they can't pick stocks that are better than average. Stocks are a good thing to own over time. There are only two things you can do wrong: You can buy the wrong ones, and you can buy or sell them at the wrong time. And the truth is you never need to sell them, basically. But they could buy a cross section of American industry, and if a cross section of American industry doesn't work, certainly trying to pick the little beauties here and there isn't going to work either. Then they just have to worry about getting greedy. I always say you should get greedy when others are fearful and fearful when others are greedy. But that's too much to expect. At a minimum, you shouldn't get greedy when others get greedy and fearful when others get fearful”.

Just change 'American' to 'Indian' in these words and then read them carefully. It's so far removed from what most people think investing is all about that it takes time to figure out what this amazingly successful old man is saying. What he is saying that long-term success of investing is based not on the fact that the investor will be able pick the 'little beauties' but on the fact that country's economy is going to grow. What is happening now, (the short-term news flow) is not important because regardless of what you hear, what is happening in the country and the economy in the short-term may not be a good indicator of what is going to happen in the stock markets in the short-term. There are too many factors, too much noise, that affect the markets for the average investor to figure out.

However, in the long-term all the noise gets cancelled out and you are left with one single question. Is the country's economy going to grow? If you think the answer is yes, then that's a good reason to go ahead and own a broad cross-section of stocks. The bonus is that because it is a time when others are fearful, a lot of investments are cheaper than they were just a short while back.

Let me prove it with facts. To do it we will have to go back in time.

I turn to history and begin with the growth rate in the Indian economy as defined by the growth rate in
India’s GDP.

The data indicates that - over the 28 year period from 1980 to 2007 - the rate of growth in real GDP was 6.2% per annum. The "real" means after inflation - after the fake increase in wealth caused by an increase in prices.

I add back inflation - which averaged about 7% for the past 28 years. This allows me to get a sense of how the Indian economy grew at "nominal" prices. Combining the two, I broadly see that the Indian economy grew by more than 13% every year for the past 28 years. Not bad!

And the BSE-30 Index increased by 18% every year since 1980.

That is the past.

This growth has come inspite of the famines, wars, assassinations, bankruptcy of our economy et all. Is there anything to suggest that the next 30 years will be different from the last 30 years?



Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Past Perfect, Future Imperfect

You must have often heard parents lament how their once dutiful children went astray after going to college. Kids who were well-behaved and studious in their school years suddenly seem to go berserk as soon as they hit college, leaving the poor parents bewildered. Same kids, radically different behavior. It’s unfortunate that children, unlike investments, do not come with the warning, ‘Note that past performance of a child is not indicative of future performance’.

 Anyone who has invested any money in mutual fund has read a variation of this statement often. While it sounds reasonable for the regulatory authority to demand a similar statement, I wonder what else can one base an investment decision on. Since the future is unknown and the past is known, all investment decisions have to be based on the past. 

No, that’s not meant to be a joke. Take a look at any newspaper, magazine, report, website, whatever. All analysis of future potential is based on the past. This is not wrong, and nor is it avoidable. When I say that this fund is likely to be a good investment, I can only judge it on the basis of its past. Sure, I’ve made some estimates about its future, but those are based on the past. It could be the fund’s past, the fund manager’s, the fund company’s past or whatever, but it’s still the past. 

Clearly, all such estimations are implicitly based on the assumption that the future will resemble the past in a significant way. Past patterns of business--of companies, consumers, markets and economies--will in some way be useful in predicting the future.

Or at least, that’s what we believe. Is this belief justified? To answer that question, we should go back to our innocent schoolchild who went wild as soon he entered college. When the environment that drives behavior changes radically, then all bets are off. 

That’s the point at which the past becomes history and the future unknown. When we look back at the history of Indian businesses over the last few decades, this point proves itself. We’ve lived through times of great change. Moreover, the change has come in waves. Whenever a wave has come, past performance of businesses has become almost irrelevant to the future. Just fifteen years ago, the idea that Infosys would be a more important business than Hindustan Motors (a Kolkata-based auto company that may still be making cars) would have seemed bizarre. Just 16 years ago, there was a massive stock market boom in which one of the starring roles was that of Premier Automobiles (a Mumbai based auto company that definitely does not make anything anymore).  

Why were investors so excited about these companies in 1992? Because they didn’t realize that the economic reforms that had just started would change India. The past was no longer a reasonable guide to the future. Indians would stop buying half-century old car designs and the world would start buying software services from Indian companies. The year 2003 was probably another such break with the past. In practical terms what that means is that both these years were choke points when the patterns of past performance had trouble extrapolating into the future.  

My feeling is that we are standing at the cusp of another such break with history, one that may be far stronger than the one in 2003. From small domestic factors to big global ones, almost everything is in a state of great flux. Don’t be surprised if the pre-2008 past turns out to be a poor guide to the post-2008 future.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Live through Volatility

The newspaper headlines today were quite predictable, one screamed

"Halal Street ", and the other said “Trillion Rupee Crash” and so on after the mayhem on the stock markets yesterday.

Many investors are shaken up, and, obviously the 'first time' investors i.e. the recent converts to equity are wondering whether it was a wise thing to 'ditch' RBI Bonds, Post Office, Bank FDs' & PPF at all?  Should they revert to the old asset allocation plan of being in 'safe fixed income investments' and not take any risks at all?

Is all that 'glitters still gold?" i.e. is the 'good old gold' better than stocks & equity funds?

There will be endless analysis about 'FII taxation', 'rise in US interest rates', 'oil prices', ' fall in world equity markets' , inflation and so on. 

I can bet that there will be discussions about who was the big seller, which FIIs sold etc. 

So what does a sincere long term buy & hold investor do?

All the above-mentioned analysis & discussions about FII taxation, interest rates etc, are of academic interest to a genuine long term buying & hold investor.

I thought the best thing to do was check my own SIP investment, see the return of my own equity MF portfolio, whether it had survived the earth-quake of this magnitude on the bourses?

After all the proof of the pudding is in eating it.

So after saying my prayers twice this morning, taking a deep breath, gathering courage- I hesitantly punched the 'pale looking Navs’ of 18th May 2006, into the spreadsheet.

In the microseconds that the spreadsheet was calculating, I said my prayers once again and then slowly opened my eyes.

I looked at the XIRR of my diversified fund SIP that I have been doing over the past 4 years. The figure stood at a 'low of 52%'.  It stood reduced to 52% from app. 59% the day before! 

I looked at the spreadsheet in disbelief to see my portfolio return at 52% XIRR after the greatest market crash in history. Was my PC playing tricks with me?

I hope not I thought, so I punched the keys frantically & fed the 'pale looking NAV' again.... it gave the same number, 52% XIRR.

I looked around with a smile on my face, but immediately became serious when I saw the others in a sombre mood. 

I called my wife and whispered into the phone, "We are still above the poverty line”! 

Although the above piece has been written with a touch of humor, there are some serious inferences from it:

* A buy & hold strategy for equity investments is the only logical method of investing as validated by experts like Warren Buffet, Jack Bogle, and many others like them for decades. 

* As repeatedly warned by Jack Bogle, a short-term investor / trader follows 'rent-a-stock' strategy as opposed to the 'own-a-stock’ method of a genuine long term buy & hold investor.

Therefore when one does 'rent-a-stock’, you have to be prepared for events like May 18th and bear those consequences.

For the 'own-a-stock' guy there is no worry because he is by default part owner in a business enterprise as represented by that stock and therefore aware that volatility is a part and parcel of the process of creating wealth in the long term.

If one owned a business like say a manufacturing unit or a shop, that business would have both good & bad days and time periods during its long existence.

One wouldn’t normally sell a factory or the shop during a bad time; one would just stay 'invested' and continue with the business.

* Equity investments are for long-term goals; therefore the holding period has to be genuinely long term i.e. at least 5 years or more.  And this long-term wealth creation process is going to be accompanied by intermittent volatility.

Take it or leave it. Period!   There is no free lunch in life and you cannot have your cake and eat it too.

* If one does not have the expertise of direct equity investments.... as many don’t, it is better to invest via broadly diversified equity mutual funds, invest systematically, and stay invested till one's long term goals or objectives are met.

A lump sum investor also creates wealth if the time period is sufficient to iron out intermediate volatility.

* I have given the example of my portfolio just as an illustration of a 'buy and hold investor' surviving the stock market slaughter, investors should follow their own asset allocation plan, financial objectives / goals, time period of investment, and assess their own risk profile.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Safe & Steady way to returns

Investors have just become a lot poorer!

The weakening of the crude along with the 20% upswing of the equities from the lows of July 2008 has made investors doubt the sustainability of the up move! The worry is whether the upbeat seen in the corporate profits in Q1FY09 can be sustained in the Q2 FY09 or not?

Equity markets are supposed to be a place to invest your extra money for the long term. A steady and patient investor in the Indian stock markets would have made nearly 20% every year for the past about 28 years. The steady investor would have made about 160 times his initial investment over this 28-year time period that has seen Indian politics head from bad to worse. India’s GDP has had an average growth of about 6.20% per annum. One of the best rates of growth of any country in the world.

The long term potential for the growth of the Indian economy has not changed. The long term potential for making your extra money earn more money while you go about your daily work has not changed. What has changed is the greed of the gambling crowds. The greed which was evident until December 2007 has now turned to a panic like fear.

Underlying Strength 

The oil prices have increased. Food prices have zoomed. And the cost of borrowing money has increased. To top it all, we have election coming up. All of these will cause some slow down and some pain. But a lot of these factors are cyclical—their importance tends to shine or fade over time. We have had elections before –in fact 7 elections between the 1980 & 2008 time period. We are still around and relatively more prosperous as a country. Why should things be different after the next election? 

As an investment manager, the challenge is not figuring whether FIIs will come again to invest in India or whether India has a future or not, rather, to identify companies and managements that can build solid long term businesses.  The idea is to prepare ourselves for the times (the last 6 months) when the investors – both large and retail—scramble out and head for the exit in panic. Profits are made when there is a difference between perception and reality. Today, people perceive stock market as the worst place to invest. 

The reality is that there are many companies that will do well over the next few years whose share prices have been hammered. These are great stocks to buy because of the underlying strength of their businesses. So as the short term investors sell the stocks, we should be happily buying the businesses that those underlying stocks represent.



Friday, September 26, 2008

Rational for investing in Mutual Funds II

Somehow we always know what we should have done in the past with our investments. But when it comes to taking action now, we are clueless. We think for example that we must have booked some profits when the stock market was at its peak in January. We did not know it then, but know it surely now. We ignore that we have the benefit of hindsight, and almost believe that there has to be a way to figure out what seems so obvious. The truth is that there is no such nice little way to make money, and investors will quarrel with this known wisdom, as they use past data and show how money could have been made.

It is useful to think about ways and means of keeping the level of the market from swaying our investment decisions completely. If your favourite restaurant runs a discount on its Mexican menu, you may not choose to have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, only because it is cheap, isn’t it? You would surely think that whether you are hungry, and whether you like Mexican cuisine are more important than the rock bottom price. Importantly, your choice of what you will eat will be driven by you, rather than what is on offer. We need to bring that common sense principle into investing as well. To an investor who hates any loss in the value of his portfolio, equity markets are a no-no even if the index is at a very attractive level. Just as my father will refuse to have pizzas for dinner, and my daughter will cringe at porridge. Therefore step one is to ask whether we like to be in the markets at all, and understand why we want to be there. If we figured that what we do with our investments has to stand on its own, driven by our needs and preferences, half the battle is won.

Sadly, just as we sneak in a samosa even as we are working out the fat, we find it so tough to actually implement what is good for us. There are well known behavioral traits that we have, which come in the way. Many of them bias our judgment and our decision. We may like to invest some money into equity at the current levels, having seen that corporate profits are healthy and fundamentals are good. But we will be worried about the fall in price that we have seen. It is so important to see some rise in price, before we buy, because we are led by our recent experiences. We are enthusiastic buyers when markets have moved up, and when everyone else seems to be buying. We seldom buy cheap. Somehow we think it has to be a good thing to do, if many people are doing so. Then, we like what we buy and refuse to accept that we could have a loser on hand. When we see prices falling, we convince ourselves that prices will somehow recover to our price. We are very clued to our price, that it becomes some kind of mental benchmark. But the market does not know this and is unlikely to care. So we tend to keep losers, and refuse to reckon the loss. If we bought at Rs. 100 and the price fell to Rs. 20, we lost 80%. When we continue to hold what we bought, and hope it will go back to Rs. 100, we are expecting a 400% increase – not realistic isn’t it? At every decision to buy or sell, we need to fight the bias to implement what is good for us, and many of us find it tough to do so.

The moral of the story is, we may have a nice little strategy of investment, but if it is driven only by the level of the market, and not by our needs, there is a risk. That risk becomes higher, when our decisions about the markets are biased and our thinking about the market and the way we make our decisions are far from optimal. When we combine the craving for the right time to buy into the market, with the biases that we suffer, we could put our investments in danger.

There are two things we could do, if we accept that this is a problem, and that we need to do something about it. One – we have a plan that we implement, without caring about where the market went. Two – we let professionals manage our money, so the call on markets is not biased. The mutual fund choice is sensible, because it enables us to implement disciplined investing in our own way, leaving the "market watch" to the fund managers. And having the fund managers to watch your money is a nice way to side step the bias. A fund manager is bound by investment processes and risk controls that take care of bias we will suffer when we deal with our own money.

 Have you noticed that your kids, who cringe about writing one-page of handwriting practice during the holidays, happily do 7 subjects a day in school? There is something about organization, process and discipline that make a job which is complex for you, simple for others, and makes implementation a breeze. Free your investments from bias. 

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Rationale for investing in Mutual Funds

It was a year since we got the car. After a disastrous stint at the driving school, which made me feel as if the clutch was the most important part of the car, and driving lessons on Sunday, which disturbed the tranquility of my holiday, I took the simple decision - driving was not for me. I hated the thought of not being able to drive. I sat in the car and looked longingly at men who zipped past. My friends disbelieved that an otherwise confident me, was refusing to drive for the fear of the road. Sitting in the front seat of a car has the ability to increase the fears of people like me - every situation looks risky and every maneuver of fellow drivers very skillful, that I simply cant get it.
Then came my dear friend Babaji, our new driver. Babaji was excellent behind the wheels and loved his job. He loved speed, but was safe to be with. After 6-months of being driven around by him, I asked tentatively, if he could teach me to drive. I told him that I am scared of the roads and worried about accidents. He talks very little, but on this issue, he went on a mini-lecture. He told me that I have to know few rules, exercise judgment and that’s it. Trust me; he got me to drive on the main roads, 2 days after our practice sessions in the deserted roads of Navi Mumbai. It is 3 years now, and I can’t thank Babaji enough, for making me confident to take the driver’s seat.
Now it was my turn to do something for Babaji. So I asked that I teach him what I know – investing. Babaji was not ready for this. He was not able to save much, and did not want to risk his small savings in markets. He reads a lot of newspapers, and told me that there it looks so complex and that he does not want to take any risk. We were on the way to office when I was convincing him, and there was big traffic jam in front of us. Babaji exercised patience as he switched from first gear to second and back. Soon as the road cleared, he sped to save time, overtaking vehicles and using every little space he got. I told him, investing is exactly like driving the road. You have to exercise judgment, you have to assess the scenario and decide, and that’s it. If I can drive, Babaji can surely invest!
The financial markets have many investment options, some are slow some are fast, just like vehicles on the road. There are regulators, licenses and signals in the markets, just as it is in the roads. Before anyone can collect money from investors, regulators have to approve the products and information given to the investors. Babaji quickly pointed out to me, that it does not always work. I told him that it does not always work on the roads either. There could be a truck driver without a license, who is learning to drive on the road. There could be vehicles that have not been serviced. The road itself may have potholes, or even be closed for repairs. Just as you cannot have a perfect road with perfect cars and drivers, you can’t have perfect markets; you have to figure out the way and exercise judgment.
To those who find this tough, there are buses and trains. Public transport that takes you at designated time, from one place to another for a fixed price. That’s what mutual funds do in the financial markets. They offer you specific products at specific prices. You can conveniently choose what you like, at the cost you can pay, and go to the destination you want. I told Babaji that investors tend to be confused on what they want. They get to the market not knowing where they want to go; they get into a bus and expect it to speed like a taxi, and they get off the bus if they find there is a jam, not realizing that they have to take another bus to go to their destination If investors used the same judgment Babaji used on roads, they will be safe in a market that has risks. The logic is the same. The financial markets also have rear view mirrors, maps and most importantly, brakes. So you only have to choose what you want to do and how. Babaji is not fully convinced and remains worried, but overtakes another truck. When I tell him that I find it so risky, he tells me that he knows what he is doing and I must not worry. That’s what it is, you need to find a trustworthy driver like Babaji (for your car and AIMS for your investments), who drives safely and skillfully, has a license and will reach you to your destination, every day, day after day. It is not even required that you learn to drive. If you do, it is an added skill you can use, when there is a need. But some choices ask that you hire and use the skills of others. After all you do not have to own a plane to be able to take a holiday!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Market Turmoil

Some Wealth Inspiring thoughts
Ø Timing is vital. It is much more important to buy cheap than to sell dear.
Ø Time in the market is more important than timing the market.
Ø It is never your thinking that makes big money, it is sitting.
Ø Success in market usually comes to those, who are too busy to be looking for it.
Ø Managing money requires more skill than making it.

Wealth as they say is like old wine. The more time it takes the longer it stays for you to savor it!!
Stock Market is generally feared by all! And may be rightly so!! Investors usually see – or rather made to see—the short term fluctuations rather than the long term upside potential which comes steadily but without much of an announcement! It’s the short term upheavals are talked about in every newspaper—much to the contrary!!!

Your would not find many investors talking about say Tata Steel moving up from a level of Rs. 530/- a year back to Rs. 745/--- a cool 40% gain! Rather you will come across many investors crying hoarse about the price of Tata Steel having gone down from Rs. 900/- on 29/10/2007 to present day price of Rs. Rs. 745/- -- a fall of 17% in just 8 months!
We at AIMS have always believed that time in the market is more important than timing the market! A 40% gains over a single year easily drowns in the din of 17-20% fall in a matter of months!
What is true for Tata Steel is true for any investment even for a Mutual Fund. We believe that Mutual Fund is the route for retail investors! It is not that we despise or discourage direct equity—direct equity is preferable only if you have the habit of digesting the fluctuations and also have the time to do your research because investing without research is like playing poker without looking at the cards.
Another compelling reason for investing in Mutual Funds is highlighted in the last wealth inspiring thoughts as stated above—managing money requires more skill than making it!
There are very few options currently where the real returns -- returns in excess of the inflation—are positive. Hence investments in PPF, Post Office; RBI Bonds or bank deposits tend to depreciate your corpus rather than appreciate. They will in all likelihood not see you through your retirement or even be able to fund your child’s higher education! Only Equity has the power to give you inflation adjusted returns!! Consider this :- a monthly investment of Rs. 1,000/- in DSP Merrill Lynch Equity Fund from 02/05/1997 till date would have grown from Rs. 1,33,000 to about Rs. 8,46,000/- -- a compounded annual growth of 20.32% (Source DSP Merrill Lynch Mutual Fund). AND THAT TOO TAX FREE!! This in spite of Dot Com meltdowns, Kargil, 9/11 etc.
The thought now looming in your mind is “What Now”? “Where will the market stabilize”? Whether this is the right time to invest or not??
We must admit frankly that we are unable to forecast the index level from where the markets would start climbing up! No body in this world – not even the legendary Warren Buffet—will be able to predict the index level!
As for “WHAT NOW” – we can only say that the India story is very much alive and with a heavy discount sale currently on – GRAB IT—before it’s too late!!
At the end we would only repeat what Lord Krishna said to Arjun during Mahabharata – tum karm karo, phal ki chinta mat karo (Do not worry about the results, just do your duty!)

Investing is your duty TODAY!

Happy Investing!!