Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

“Do you remember Dr Rustom Pavri that character from Munnabhai MBBS that helps Munna pass all exams and not get caught by answering questions secretly on mobile?” asked my broker friend Jigneshbhai when we met for coffee this morning.

Swami and I had a distinct smile of recognition on our faces, but weren’t quite sure why Jigneshbhai was talking about that comic Parsi character.

“My CA friend felt like him yesterday night” he remarked.

Swami and I were wondering why. Seeing that, our broker friend clarified.

“All his trader ‘Munnabhai’ friends were calling him continuously yesterday night, like students who had suddenly got an out of syllabus surprise question in their paper.”

“But this time even my CA friend had no answer to this question. And there was no time to find an answer too!”

Swami and I then realized that Jigneshbhai was referring to the announcement made by the PM and Govt that 500 and 1000 rupee notes would be illegal tender from midnight of Nov 8-9, 2016.

It was the classic out of syllabus surprise question set by a tough paper setter aimed to fail cheating students, and given 10 min before the bell rings.

“And the best part is” continued Jigneshbhai, “that whatever happens, chances are high that the paper setter i.e. PM Modi and his government, win.”

Jigneshbhai was pretty excited about this new announcement and explained the various scenarios why it was a win-win situation for the government.

“Firstly” he said, “if you are a sincere student, this doesn’t apply to you except for a few days of inconvenience of exchanging now illegal tender for valid notes. For that small price, the government gains tremendously in the minds of the common sincere man.”

“Secondly” he continued, “if you are a cheat with cash, you can take the first choice of going to a bank and depositing it, and somehow declaring it. In which case, government gains with tax income.”

“And if you choose not to do it, then you are left with paper which you can’t do much with. In which case again the government gains because they eliminated some unaccounted money without the hassles of catching it.”

“And Thirdly” Jigneshbhai explained, “if you are a cheat with undeclared assets other than cash, you don’t suffer much immediately, but are going to think twice before generating more black money in cash. Again the government gains.”

“Fourthly” my broker friend wasn’t done yet “if none of this happens, the least that happens is the real criminal, drug, fake currency and terrorist organizations are anyway left high and dry with useless paper.”

“And finally” Jigneshbhai concluded, “beyond the economic benefits, the political gains in terms of clean image, brownie points and leaving the opposition with nothing to oppose clearly are like that MasterCard advertisement – things that are beyond measure.”

Jigneshbhai was truly, genuinely excited today. Perhaps after a long time, there was satisfaction felt that being honest mattered, not having black money was good. And the silent black money holder was probably worried for the first time in years.

But it was too early to celebrate. It definitely seemed like the first major step of many more steps of clampdown on domestic black economy. It seemed like an honest attempt, at the very least, and a genuine transformation, at the very best.

The old man in the sprawling bungalow who had been listening to our conversation from the table next to us, reminded us that of all the calculated risks, this would probably rank way up there for this government, with potential gains outstripping possibility of losses – for itself and for the country.

Like Amitabh’s coin in Sholay, it was a case of “Heads I win, Tails you lose.”

Saboot aur Gawaah

“Tamam gawahon ke bayaanat aur sabooton ko madde nazar rakhte hue” started Jigneshbhai in a very filmy mood when we met this weekend for coffee. “Isn’t that how that dialogue went in the old Hindi movies?”

Swami, a big fan of Hindi movies completed the dialogue that my broker friend had started. “Yeh adalat is natije pe pohochi hain ki, Mulzim bekasoor hain. Lehaza Mulzim ko ba-izzat bari kiya jaata hain.”

And we had a big hearty laugh remembering the troubled judge banging “Order, Order!” in God knows how many old Hindi movies.

proof

My broker friend said “One of my friends, an ardent non-believer in God, has this habit of asking for evidence every time any of us remotely talks about anything suggestive of religious, spiritual or ritualistic things.”

Jigneshbhai seemed to be in his story telling mode today, so Swami and I were all ears. Specially when it comes to proof and evidence, Swami is always attentive.

“And as you know, no one has been able to conclusively prove the existence of God so far.”

“So every time after presentation of tamam gawaah aur saboot, the ‘mulzim’ gets baizzat buried!!” Our broker friend broke into a laugh.

Swami and I were not quite sure why he was laughing so much, specially about touchy matters like proof of God.

After a while, realizing that he was laughing all alone, he stopped.

With a twinkle in his eye, he said “By the way, we believe in God with no evidence, but nowadays, ask for evidence about everything else, right?”

Swami and I got an inkling that Jigneshbhai was probably referring to the demands of proof for the surgical strikes that the Indian Army had done a few days back.

All government actions require documentation and process.

We have to submit proof of identity, proof of residence, proof of domicile, proof of income for so many things like Aadhaar card, admission to government colleges, loan applications, etc. Even to get bills passed in parliament, there is ‘kanooni process’. Audits happen to establish ‘saboot’ of corruption happening or not happening.

So it is natural that in a country that goes so much by ‘gawaah aur saboot’, the Army also needs to provide proof of a surgical strike it performed on the enemy.

I wonder whether it would have been a good idea for our Army to have submitted all the right documents at all the government offices and followed all processes, before performing the surgical strikes.

Maybe that would have left ‘tamaam gawaah aur saboot’.

While we were lost in figuring out what would be the best documentation to ensure that there is enough proof before the next surgical strike by the Army, Jigneshbhai broke that chain of thought.

“So we ask for proof from the Army, but where there is proof and ‘after tamaam gawaah aur saboot’, the judge has given his verdict, we don’t follow it, and evoke emotion!”

Swami and I were again left wondering what Jigneshbhai was talking about, but quickly realized that he was probably referring to the verdicts in the Cauvery Water case and the BCCI Lodha committee.

“Sharing water and establishing corruption and shady cricket deals where there is ‘tamaam gawaahon ke bayanaat aur saboot’, we invoke emotion, and from the Army, where we need a bit of faith, we ask for proof.” Jigneshbhai clarified.

Clearly, in a rational world, evidence and data are paramount, Swami and I thought. But our broker friend was perhaps right in suggesting that there is a place for rationality and there is a place for faith.

While we were musing over this, the wealthy man in the sprawling bungalow, who had been listening to our talk (mainly Jigneshbhai’s today), walked over to our table. He sat for a while today and left us with more food for thought.

“For the Army and government, it is rational to not provide “gawaah aur saboot”. And for the enemy and politicians, it is rational to demand for it. For you, it is wise to determine who to place your faith on! Because Koi saboot nahi, toh Koi gunehgaar nahi!”

Known Knowns and Unknown Unknowns

“Swami uncle, how do you know that Ganpati Bappa goes to his home elsewhere after we immerse him?” asked Jigneshbhai’s son as we were returning after immersing the Swami’s Ganesh idol after this year’s festival.

It was Swami’s turn to be at the receiving end of questions this time from our broker friend’s son. Jigneshbhai was having a naughty smile as he was enjoying the reversal of fortune – from Swami’s questions to Swami being asked questions.

“How can all lakes and seas reach his home?” Jigneshbhai’s son continued. “Do you have proof that Ganpati Bappa reaches home?”

Swami was lucky that we soon reached our coffee-house, and our families left us alone with our weekly coffee routine, and so the questions stopped.

“Your son asks a lot of questions!” Swami finally said, after they were all gone.

“For once, I did not face your questions! Or his!” my broker friend laughed.

“So how would you answer them? Of course, we know the real Ganpati Bappa goes nowhere. But next he would ask me if there was any proof if Ganpati Bappa was real?” an exasperated, god-fearing Swami exclaimed.

Jigneshbhai stayed silent for a while. He was probably lost in some thought.

“Well if we don’t have conclusive proof that he exists, we also don’t have conclusive explanation to negate the theory that he does exist!” Jigneshbhai stated.

That left Swami and I a bit confused. But our broker friend continued.

“There are the known knowns – like oxygen is necessary for life, and then there are the known unknowns – like we don’t know how life originated or if God exists for sure. But there are also the unknown unknowns – like maybe we don’t even know what we don’t know about the possibilities in the endless universe or in the future!”

Swami and I looked at each other, wondering whether our broker friend was fine. He seemed in fine health a few moments back, but suddenly he had escaped into an unknown orbit.

Unlike our normal confused faces in such situations earlier when Jigneshbhai gave some profound theories, this time our faces indicated outright amusement. Perhaps that’s the reason our broker friend too broke into laughter.

“I am not joking!” he said. “Isn’t it right? Even Donald Rumsfeld when once asked if there was enough proof that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction used something like this. Maybe he meant it, or maybe he was justifying the war – who knows!”

Indeed that was true. I distinctly remembered that, and it became a topic of contention for a long time. But it actually demonstrated the realities of taking decisions at the highest centers of power with an understanding of what is known, what is unknown, and an appreciation of how little may be actually known.

While Swami and I were musing about the known knowns and unknowns unknowns in our life, our broker friend, in a jovial mood today, intercepted our thoughts cheekily. “Like whether the markets will oblige him is a big unknown for Swami!”

Obviously that little provocation was enough for Swami to get started. “Maybe” he said sarcastically, “but most else in your investing domain is based on numbers and metrics isn’t it? So it should fall into known knowns!”

“Well” said our broker friend. “Numbers give you a false sense of knowing.”

Swami and I were starting to understand what our broker friend was trying to get at, and why his answers are often in shades of black and white – specially to Swami’s questions on buy or sell. But it still wasn’t fully clear so we were lost in thought.

Jigneshbhai continued.

“There are many known knowns in investing – like high profitability is good, or low P/E is cheap. And then there are known unknowns – like what will the market do in the next month, or who will be the next RBI governor. But there are also the unknown unknowns – like we don’t know what technologies or trends will emerge and impact business.”

“The important thing is to collect as many knowns as you can, and build an appreciation of their limitations due to the possibilities of the unknowns. And then act with openness.”

While we were engaged in this discussion on knowns and unknowns, the wealthy old man in the sprawling bungalow walked over to our table. He had been quietly listening to our conversation, and as we were preparing to walk, he looked at Swami and I and left us with some words of wisdom, emerging from rock music, perhaps?

There are things known, and things unknown, and in between are the Doors.

Motivation and a System

“What was your motivation? Can you give us a few tips?” asked one of Swami’s friends to my broker friend Jigneshbhai when we met him last weekend. It was a slightly different coffee meet last weekend as some of Swami’s and my friends had also joined us for a coffee session with our broker friend. One of them had met Jigneshbhai over a year back last time and on seeing him was obviously surprised.

Reducing 25 kg is a lifetime achievement for someone who has been overweight for most of his adult life, and for Jigneshbhai who was a self-proclaimed foodie and someone who did not have a special talent for any major physical activity or sport, it was a doubly commendable feat.

“This is one question that nobody has missed asking me whenever I have met them over the past month or so” Jigneshbhai remarked nonchalantly on hearing that question from Swami’s friend.

“But the funny thing is I don’t even remember what was the motivation for me to get started” he continued.

Swami and I had got into this type of conversation with Jigneshbhai a couple of months back when we had seen him reduce his weight substantially, get fitter and look younger over the past 6-8 months. He had told us then that at some level, the starting point was some kind of feeling that life was probably running out. At another level, it was perhaps about setting a healthy example for his son.

Eventually he also told us that it was also about trying out something new and seeing where it goes. He also remembered having a conversation over coffee with another mutual friend who had embraced the healthy lifestyle, that had provided the spark for him to start down the fitness path.

“But honestly, motivation is overrated beyond the start. Motivation is a pretty unreliable partner” my broker friend asserted, continuing his reply.

Swami and I were slightly surprised with this answer from Jigneshbhai. We generally tend to think that someone who has done something remarkable probably had a huge motivation. Or some special secret. Even our mutual friend felt the same. And hence his question on the source of motivation and tips.

But Jigneshbhai continued with his different view.

“Motivation fills you with hopes of tomorrow, only to disappear the next day morning. It fills you with possibilities about the future, only to disappoint you when you need it most.”

motivationhabit

While Swami and I were thinking about it, our broker friend continued.

“Don’t get me wrong – motivation is pretty good to get you started, motivation gives you the initial ‘why’ of anything, but that’s about it – don’t depend on it.”

Swami was listening to this with a sense of surprise. And as usual, was the first to counter Jigneshbhai. Not with anger this time – unlike our discussions on investing – but with a sense of curiosity perhaps.

“So if not motivation, what do you depend on?” Swami finally asked.

Jigneshbhai broke into a smile on hearing Swami’s question. He more or less expected Swami to intervene at some point I think. And now that Swami had spoken, he felt a sense of familiarity maybe.

“Well – what I have learned over the past year is that whether it is wanting to build health or to build wealth, the rules are not very different. All that you need is a system. And once you have figured that out for yourself, that system is what you can depend on.”

This was not what Swami and I were expecting.

We were talking about health, and here our broker friend had somehow managed to connect it with his pet topic of investing. And while we were hoping to hear some motivating stories about his journey to fitness, he was telling us about some kind of system. Obviously not something that could keep Swami silent.

“What is a system?” he blurted almost as soon as my broker friend had finished, and while I was trying to absorb what he had said.

Jigneshbhai seemed to have an answer – almost a definition of sorts – ready.

“A system is something that determines what actions need to be taken, builds a plan around them and structures them into regular habits to increase the probability of producing an outcome.” He defined a system almost as if it was from a book on physics.

“And the rules of the health system aren’t very different from those of the wealth system” he added, leaving both Swami and I a bit lost.

Health, wealth, rules, system – it was all getting a bit confusing. Specially when all that we had asked him for was what was his motivation to get fit. And perhaps share a few tips on it so we could follow them.

Sensing the usual look of confusion on our faces, our broker friend was more enthusiastic than usual to remove it. So he clarified.

“Well – the system is a set of habits that remove the need for motivation every time. And I realized that the top few rules of health and wealth systems are simple and very similar.”

“Firstly – you need to save calories, what they call as a deficit, if you want to reduce weight – essentially the difference between what your body spends and what you earn from food. Unless you have a deficit, everything else is irrelevant. Pretty much like investing starts with savings – the difference between income and expenditure.”

“Second – you create the deficit by allocating calories between a bit less food and a bit more exercise of different types, so that you can manage it. In this process, you figure out the foods and exercises that work best for you without losing sleep and within the calorie budgets. A bit like asset allocation.”

“And Thirdly – you build habits in your life that let you do this day in, day out, week after week, month after month without need for a surge of motivation every time. A bit like setting and automatically following your investing plan via a set of methods that work for you, irrespective of where the market is going.”

“That’s all there is to it. Of course, there are finer aspects of what you eat, when you eat, or what you exercise and how much – running or cycling or weights, and such things. But those are techniques that each must find for oneself – a bit like which stocks or mutual funds to buy and sell.”

Finally, Jigneshbhai had told us – in black and white unlike his investing wisdom – the things that he learned regarding his fitness journey over the past year. There weren’t any specific tips we were looking for. But maybe it was better to learn fishing than get a fish.

While we were absorbing what Jigneshbhai had learned from his one year journey to fitness, the old man in the sprawling bungalow who had been listening to our conversation walked over to our table.

This time he looked at all of us and left us with food for thought – the healthy variety.

“Find your motivation and build a system. Motivation will make you feel like doing something, and a system will make sure you do it even if you don’t feel like it.”

Happy Ending

“So finally this is the happy ending we were looking for!” said Swami, in an especially exuberant mood today, as we met for coffee this weekend. Swami’s smile knew no bounds today. “I wonder what took them so long!” he exclaimed.

My broker friend, Jigneshbhai, obviously realized that the reason for Swami’s impish glee was that the Rajya Sabha had finally cleared the constitutional amendment needed to bring in the ‘one country, one tax’ GST regime, and that too unanimously.

And today, even my broker friend, was happy. “Indeed it is a momentous step, a happy one” he remarked making Swami smile. “Politics was why it took so long” he added.

Swami looked at me almost as if to say that, for once, your broker friend has agreed with me. And he seemed to agree with Jigneshbhai too. But today Swami was in a happy, almost filmy, mood.

“You are right. But all sides did ‘Give Some Take Some’ I guess” Swami said, coming up with a new full form of GST.

“But you have to give it to our PM. Kabhi kabhi jeetne ke liye kuch haarna bhi padta hai. Aur haarkar jeetne waale ko baazigar kehte hai!” Swami was in a truly jubilant mood today, which had turned filmy for some reason.

Jigneshbhai gave a surprised smile on hearing the dialogue from Swami.

“But it is the start, not the end,” he proclaimed. “It is not the happy ending, it is the muhurat shot!”

Even my broker friend wasn’t to be left behind in this trading of filmy dialogues today. “The producers and the cast are all set, but the entire film has to be shot still.” They were now speaking only in filmy metaphors.

But he was right, I thought. I had read in the papers that this thing they had done in parliament of clearing a constitutional amendment was only an enabling start.

The states had to now bring their own GST law, and at least 15 states needed to pass it. And then separate GST bills for central and state taxes had to be brought back to parliament, and finally a GST council of finance ministers had to set the tax rate. All this just to get the law started on paper.

Later of course, the bureaucracy – also consisting of former, presumably disgruntled, central excise, octroi and state tax departments, who would then have nothing to do and little avenue for under the table money – had to implement it with utmost sincerity – using a new IT system that was being built.

When all of this is done, it would probably be a happy ending.

But Swami had the habit of celebrating early. And he wasn’t ready to take doses of my broker friend’s realism today.

“So are you saying this is not going to happen?” he questioned, now with the smile gone away.

“Chances are bright that the film will be completed” Jigneshbhai remarked, still in filmy-speak. “But we will have to wait for that to see if it is a happy ending. You know how various stars develop tantrums or sometimes the producer runs out of money!” My broker friend seemed to have taken the filmy thing really seriously today.

But Swami had already declared it – ‘The GST film’ so to speak – a hit. So he had a frown on his face on hearing this from Jigneshbhai. But he was not the one whose enthusiasm could be cowed down today.

Kehte hain agar kisi cheez ko dil se chaho toh poori kayanath use tumse milane ki koshish me lag jaati hai” he finally remarked continuing his SRK dialogue sessions. “Everyone wants this so badly now, that it is going to happen. So don’t worry, this will be done!” Swami continued with a splendid show of confidence.

Well, it was true that there was reason to think of the possibilities of the future, given the leap of faith that our politicians seemed to have taken two days back. But it was equally true that, with time, those tenuous equations change, and there could be obstacles that could put GST on the back-burner again.

So while I was thinking about what was right – Swami’s unbridled happiness, or my broker friend’s cautious hope – the wealthy old man in the sprawling bungalow, who always spoke cryptically walked up to our table.

It looked like the filmy virus of our conversations that he had been listening to, had caught him as well, as he left us wondering with a dialogue of his own.

“Hamari filmon ki tarah hamaari zindagi mein bhi, end tak sab kuch theek hi ho jaata hai.. Happies Ending.. Aur agar theek na ho toh woh the end nahi..Picture abhi baaki hai mere dost!”

Double-Edged Sword

“It’s a bit like Karma. Every entry on the debit side has an entry on the credit side. There cannot be a single absolute good or bad” said the old man in the sprawling bungalow sitting next to our table while Jigneshbhai, Swami and I were enjoying our coffee.

Today while we were silent, the old man was speaking. I wasn’t quite sure what he was referring to, but he seemed to react to Swami’s exuberance on the markets reaching new 52-week highs this past week. Swami was in a great mood today, and had nothing to complain as he thought about how well his investments were doing. When he has nothing to complain, generally he has nothing to say.

“Everything is so good. Markets are going up, hitting new highs, and they say this is just the start” Swami had said, a few minutes earlier when we were starting our coffee.

The old man in the sprawling bungalow was probably reacting to that, I thought.

“There is nothing like only good” he asserted.

My broker friend Jigneshbhai was listening attentively. When the old man spoke, all of us generally listened. But today Swami’s exuberance got ahead of him.

“How can you say that? Brexit is behind us, the GST bill is going to be passed, earnings have come up well, and the markets are going up. How can all of that be anything but good?” he protested.

Jigneshbhai and I waited but the old man in the sprawling bungalow did not say anything.

Swami directed his gaze at my broker friend, expecting an answer. There was a silence.

Finally knowing well that the old man in the sprawling bungalow doesn’t speak much and whenever he does, it is quite cryptic, Jigneshbhai thought that it might be time for him to speak.

“Well – for every buyer there is a seller. And both of them think they are right. Both of them think what they are doing is good for them.”

My broker friend seemed to agree with the old man. But Swami clearly wasn’t in agreement. And I was confused, trying to digest what both of them were saying.

“But isn’t good earnings good?” Swami revolted.

My broker friend smiled. And after brief thought replied. “Yes – but the buyer of shares is buying because earnings are good, and the seller of the same shares is selling because of the same reason – earnings are good. And both of them think they are right.”

Swami was still not convinced. And I was wondering what’s the truth in this circular argument of my broker friend.

“This is all philosophy. Markets are up and that is good. Nothing else is right. How can there be two sides to that?” Swami finally concluded with a tone of confidence.

My broker friend continued with the same logic that he had earlier.

“Sure – but the buyer of shares is buying because markets are up, and the seller is selling because of the same reason – the markets are up. And both of them think they are right.”

“So what? Who is right? And isn’t it all good?” asked Swami, by now quite impatient, and finally added, with an uneasy tinge of uncertainty “And finally what should I do?”

Despite the tacit explanations of my broker friend, Swami wasn’t convinced. All he knew was markets were up and he felt good about it. My broker friend had tried to explain the duality of markets.

“That’s the thing about economics and finance. No right or wrong, no good or bad in absolute sense.”

But clearly the message of balance was lost in Swami’s exuberance. But it had, nevertheless, raised some doubts in our mind on what’s good and what to do anyway.

And while Swami and I were musing about it, the old man in the sprawling bungalow got up and prepared to leave. And he left us with some food for thought.

“There is no good or bad. Markets are always a double-edged sword. For every greed buying, there is a fear selling. For every greed selling, there is a fear buying. You just need to go beyond both, so that you are never on the edge.”

 

Love Hate Aur Dhoka

“Indians have a love hate relationship with stock markets” said the CEO of the Bombay Stock Exchange a few months back. And he goes on to add “We have a market that is not safe for investors to a large extent.” Further he adds “Only 2% of India i.e. 20-25 Million people invest in shares or mutual funds.”

My broker friend was reading out from a magazine as we met for our coffee this weekend. Swami and I were wondering what he was getting at. But he continued, this time from another article.

“SIP inflows are now about 3000 crore monthly as against 2500 crore six months back.” “FII inflows till date are about 22000 crores this year against 60000 crores last year.”

Swami and I were thinking that our broker friend will now tell us what he was getting at. But he continued again. This time with even more exclamation.

“Quess IPO was oversubscribed 147 times, L&T Infotech IPO was oversubscribed 12 times, Thyrocare was oversubscribed 62 times, and Ujjivan was oversubscribed 41 times. And I am sure there are more to come.”

Finally he looked up at us, smiled and said, “Looks like we are falling in love again.”

Swami and I looked at each other kind of wondering “What’s love got to do with it?”

“The hate of the past few years is gone. The love was cooking, now it seems it is served.”

Swami and I still confused. Love, Hate, Cooking and Investing. We just weren’t getting it.

Finally Swami had just one question “So?” Our confused state of mind was amply clear to our broker friend from the question itself. He finally obliged with some explanation.

“Well – it does look like there is increased participation in the markets from individual investors now. Which is great. But I hope it is not out of love.”

We were finally getting some of what Jigneshbhai was trying to say.

The quotes he was reading from did seem to indicate that individual investors were putting in money in the markets faster and in greater amounts than earlier. More money in SIPs, more money in IPOs, and lesser impact of foreigners’ money seemed to suggest that.

As we were musing over the apprehensions of our broker friend, he continued speaking.

“Because even if you love the markets, it won’t love you back. This kind of love can quickly turn into hate with the slightest mishap.”

That got Swami and I thinking about our broker friend’s skepticism.

The old man in the sprawling bungalow who was listening to our conversation walked over to our table. He always spoke cryptically, and this time was no different, albeit a bit clearer.

“Don’t love the markets. If there’s no love, there’s no hate. And if there’s no hate, there’s no dhokha. Go by your long-term plan, love it and stick to it, so that there is no love, hate or dhokha with the markets.”

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