There was an American comedian who, whenever someone would ask him, "How's your wife?" would reply, "Compared to what"? The answer to today's big question is the same. Is equity investing too risky for the retail investors? Well, compared to what? The crucial issue is not whether the investor is retail or wholesale, but whether the investments are for the long- or the short-term and what kind of skills and presence of mind does he or she brings to the actual choice of investments.
Practically speaking, risk in the stock markets is a function of time. The longer the time frame over which you invest, the lower the risk. Today, all this talk of the 'retail investors' losing money in the markets appears to be about individuals who normally do not invest in the markets but have perhaps come into the markets in recent months hoping for some quick gains. There are many such investors and it's possible that they will lose money. Nothing should be done about this. Such 'investors', retail or not, should not be surprised by their losses.
But there are long-term investors too who are feeling nervous at the volatility in the markets. Here, I think people need to define what is meant by risk and what is meant by loss. Most of us feel cheated whenever the market value of any investment declines. We invest Rs 1 lakh and in just a few months it becomes Rs 2 lakh. Then, when it comes down to Rs 1.6 lakh, we start crying about risk because we've lost Rs 40,000. This is not a loss. Such volatility is part of the same deal that gives us the high returns in the first place.
If you define risk as volatility (which most people do), then the stock markets are indeed very risky. But if you define risk as the probability of suffering a loss over a long-term (which is how I think individual investors should define it), then the risk is entirely manageable and largely dependent on the quality of your investment decisions. So how can you make sure that you make good investment decisions? That's simple--take the mutual fund route and leave it to someone with a public track-record of being a good investor.
Think about it for a moment. When someone gets a serious disease, should they go to a doctor? Or should they declare themselves to be 'retail doctors' and start treating themselves? Just because you have money to invest doesn't mean that you have the skill to invest any more that than having a disease means that you have the skill to cure yourself.
I believe equity investing is a highly specialized task that needs skills and judgement that only a few people have. I'm not saying that this is a skill that only professional fund managers have. There are many individual investors who are good at it and there are many professional fund managers who are lousy. However, it's easy-and dangerous-to convince yourself that you have what it takes to make good investments when the markets are booming.
The daily, hyperventilative tracking of the BSE Sensex in the media creates the impression that the stock markets are a high-risk casino where the one must stake all at unknown odds to stand a chance of making money. And actually, if you are a short-term punter that may well be true. However, for someone who has, over the years, invested steadily in mutual funds with good track records, the markets are an almost sure shot way of getting far better returns than any other investment can provide.