डर के आगे जीत है: Why Long Term Investors should not fear Market Crashes

canwepanicnow“Can we panic now?” asked Ron Weasley to Harry Potter in “The Chamber of Secrets” when they suddenly find themselves surrounded by giant spiders in the Forbidden Forest. That is how a lot of us feel in the current market situation, perhaps. It is one of those times when everyone seems to ask everyone else this question. Is it time to panic?

Like so many things in finance, this is the wrong question with many answers that seem right. The reality is everyone may have a view, but no one can claim to know the answer for sure. The fact is that it is the wrong question to ask.

There is no doubt that in stomach churning times of volatility, the first thought that strikes you may be – sell everything and run. Sometimes, the second thought may be – buy everything quick, because things have gotten cheaper. Both the views are wrong because they depend on timing activities based on market events, rather than based on a plan.

Mr Market can get into manic-depressive moods as well as exuberant moods at the drop of a hat. If it forces one to get either too happy or too sad, one is turning one’s basic advantage into a disadvantage. Think of stocks as a crate of coke or a basket of potato chips that you buy for weekend parties. If you bought something on Wednesday, and your neighborhood supermarket announced a 10% off sale on Friday, will you think – Oh no! I think I should sell the coke and chips I have, and conserve some cash! At best you may think, let me buy more as the prices are great, and I am going to need them next weekend anyway. If you are a rational consumer, you are likely to weigh your decision – based on whether you need more coke and chips, whether you think it is worth stocking up, and whether you think the sale is genuine or is it on old stock. Unfortunately, a lot of individual investors do not think about stocks like that, and hence the fear associated with market falls. Therefore, headlines read ‘Global Bloodbath’ instead of ‘Sale, Sale Sale!’

Take this quiz that Buffett wrote in his 1997 letter to his shareholders – “If you plan to eat hamburgers throughout your life and are not a cattle producer, should you wish for higher or lower prices for beef? Likewise, if you are going to buy a car from time to time but are not an auto manufacturer, should you prefer higher or lower car prices? These questions, of course, answer themselves.

But now for the final exam: If you expect to be a net saver during the next five years, should you hope for a higher or lower stock market during that period? Many investors get this one wrong. Even though they are going to be net buyers of stocks for many years to come, they are elated when stock prices rise and depressed when they fall. In effect, they rejoice because prices have risen for the “hamburgers” they will soon be buying. This reaction makes no sense. Only those who will be sellers of equities in the near future should be happy at seeing stocks rise. Prospective purchasers should much prefer sinking prices. ”

And finally he adds: “So smile when you read a headline that says “Investors lose as market falls.” Edit it in your mind to “Disinvestors lose as market falls — but investors gain.” Though writers often forget this truism, there is a buyer for every seller and what hurts one necessarily helps the other.”

darrkeaagejeethaiThe really good long-term returns from equity come not despite the falls, but because of the falls. For someone who invested in US equity 10 years back and forgot it, he may look at his portfolio today and say – this has gone nowhere. Similarly, for some one who invested in Indian equity 4-5 years back, again the scenario is similar – broader market levels in August 2011 are more or less where they were in August 2007. But for someone who rode the falls, and invested at that time to whatever small degree, even partially in the right stocks or funds, the returns have come. So it is not that the long-term returns from equity have come despite the fall. The long-term returns from equity come because of the fall. The problem is no one can say for sure whether a fall is the end of the falls, or the beginning of another set of falls. Life has to be lived in forward mode, and can only be analyzed in reverse mode later.

But one thing is clear. It is during the times of sudden, big falls that fear is at its highest. It is in such times where it is most important for an investor – firstly not to sell, secondly do nothing, and thirdly buy something. Because truly, in such times, the risk of permanent loss of capital gets lower. If one manages to neglect the value of investments already made (and hence notional losses or reduction in profits), buy the right things in large proportions during times of ‘darr’, and can withstand, or better still, buy more during further falls if they happen, he is sure to be on his way to ‘jeet’  – may be not in a few weeks or months, but surely in a matter of many years. As long as one is committed for the really long haul, and makes rational choices, there is no doubt that there is truth in the saying – डर के आगे जीत है.

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