No News is Good News: Is Your Expert Service Provider also Honest?

The wife has been feeling a bit unwell with frequent abdominal aches for the past few weeks. (I am going to refer to my wife as “the wife” like the humorist Busybee used to in his articles in Mumbai’s “The Afternoon” so many years back – I used to find it so funny). So well – getting back, the wife has been a bit unwell. I have a mild version of hospital phobia, despite the wife being a doctor. In a sense, that works well because the wife takes health decisions for everyone at home – on which illness is to be neglected, when you should be happy with just some medicines and when an illness is to be taken seriously enough to visit the hospital. So this time, the wife being the patient, took a call that enough of medicines – it was time that she needed an “endoscopy”. So we finally got an appointment, went to the hospital and got it done. Well – after that, the surgeon called me in, and very dutifully showed me all the photographs and videos that the endoscope had recorded. I blankly nodded with a studious look pretending that I understood everything he said, as if I see the insides of stomachs day in and day out. And finally, at the end of it, he said something to this effect – there is nothing, it is all fine and normal. Just a bit of gastritis, let her manage her lifestyle and health, do not give her stress and things should go away. You do not worry.

Once I got out, I asked the wife – so you have no illness? No indeed. So there was no news as such. We got through a procedure and there was no news. Which actually was good news.

The wife was pretty cool about it. This happens all the time she said. Patients who feel they have a serious illness due to pain in the stomach turn out to be simple gastritis patients 80% of the time. As the conversation progressed, she continued – “In fact, doctors admit them just because patients refuse to go back often. And sometimes, not just that, the patient who is not ill ends up picking up an infection from the hospital! So, if you are seriously ill, your odds of getting better improve when you get admitted, but if you are not seriously ill, the odds of getting worse are more! Now you understand why I neglect most of your petty illnesses at home.” Towards the end, I thought that was not the doctor speaking, it was the wife.

Be that as it may, it sounded amazing to me – but then I guess doctors are people too, doctors are wives too. The wife continued – “But this doctor was good and honest too. He did not tell you that we will need to observe and prescribe something more. Maybe because I am a doctor here.”

So that was it – we found a doctor who was honest enough to tell us – you do not need me. And a patient who was obedient enough to listen to him.

This is not as common as it looks. Perhaps in medicine, you have more honest doctors and more obedient patients – because it is about your life and health. So the chances of coming across such doctors still is high – despite all the corporatisation of healthcare and the works. But it struck me that in other areas where people are supposed to be ‘doctors’ or experts in their fields, they do not always act with that kind of integrity. How many experts at auto service stations tell you when you take your car for a check up that “Your car does not need me”? How many accountants will tell you – well, everything is fine with your accounts, why don’t you file your returns yourself? How many financial advisers to whom you take your portfolio are honest enough to tell you “Your financial health is fine and this is why you do not need me”? And finally, how many of us would be happy with these kind of advisers, and like good patients – obedient enough to take their advise? Has it ever been the case that when you engaged some of these ‘doctors’ you were perfectly fine and then caught an infection?

Something to ponder upon. Well – the fact is that instances of finding experts who say – “you do not need me” are few and far between. It is possible that you do need some medicines some time, but if according to your expert, you need them all the time, perhaps it is time to change your doctor for these areas. Move to someone who gives you no news. Sometimes, no news can be good news.

Is Financial Independence an End in itself?

I have often wondered, specially when I read a lot of financial planning related articles, whether financial independence is an end in itself. A lot of financial planning is geared towards basically creating a corpus for a goal like retirement which can replace your current income stream in inflation adjusted terms. And it is all good when they profess getting out of debt, preach high rates of savings that are put in a manner across asset types to provide returns that enable oneself to reach that goal.

But I sometimes wonder whether financial independence can really be defined? And while the pursuit of that has been one of the key motivators of my life, I have sometimes wondered whether that pursuit of a financially free tomorrow has left me in chains

That’s where I realized that, perhaps, the goal of achieving financial freedom is not an end in itself. And while it is good to have a financial plan and work towards it (in fact, highly recommended for most individuals), a blind following of the same, specially without purpose, may be closer to slavery than to freedom. Also, I think the point of financial freedom can, perhaps, be defined to be the one where the marginal utility of having more money diminishes in the eyes of the individual. And this point is likely to be different for different individuals. Basically, from that point, 5 times more money will not make one 5 times happier. You may still continue to chase money beyond that, but in non-financial terms, you are already free from that point. I guess if an individual can carefully assess what that point is for himself, it would serve him well to make financial independence a good journey rather than a destination in itself.

So by all means, the pursuit of financial independence is a very worthy goal, but if one adds to it, a purpose as to why one wants to be financially free, and determines a point at which the marginal utility of money keep diminishing – the journey can be truly fulfilling and make life itself much more rewarding.

The Financial and Psychological Benefits of Rebalancing

I have always felt that individual investors (or perhaps any investor to some extent for that matter) have never got a complete handle of the decision on when to sell. Traders or speculators mostly have a fixed target for profit or stop-loss, but investors never seem to enter a stock with a clear exit goal.


Rebalancing as a strategy might provide answers to solve this quandary – more than anything else for the individual investor. At a portfolio level, it provides you with a clear answer on when to sell, and, if required, it can be translated and implemented at an individual stock level also by more mature individual investors. Setting asset allocation limits at various levels in a portfolio can provide you with clear triggers on when to sell. So then, you stop asking yourself questions like – should I sell stock A at this price or wait for some time – questions which have no clear answers anyway. On the other hand, that answer is provided at an overall portfolio level, based on allocation limits.

For example, to provide a complex set of rebalancing rules, consider the following: If you determine that equity will account for 60% of my portfolio, and within that, large cap stocks will account for 50% of the holdings, and then no industry will account for more than 25% and no stock more than 10%, then it becomes easier to take decisions on what and how much to sell when these allocation percentages go out of whack. And if you are not a direct stock investor, but take your exposure through mutual funds, it gets much easier than the above scenario, assuming that your fund manager is dealing with the rest. Therefore, ‘I bought stock A at X, should I sell it now at this price Y’ becomes a wrong and somewhat irrelevant question, and thankfully so.

Of course, rebalancing is not a strategy that guarantees the highest returns. In certain cases, you may end up selling your winners, which in hindsight may not feel great. But for individual investors, who may have no particular reason to feel a sense of conviction about a specific stock, it provides a good way to reduce or manage risk. I do not think at a mathematical level, rebalancing has a very high impact on returns, but it sure reduces risk of excessive falls and locks in some of the profits. And if done correctly, it will also ensure that you buy equity at a time when every one is running away from it – in which case rebalancing affects your long term returns too.

An important effect of this strategy might well also be at a mental or psychological level – because an individual investor feels he is in control and has been smart to book profits when his portfolio grows and to buy stocks when they were low in price.

Therefore, less for returns, more for managing risk, and most importantly for the psychological advantage of getting emotion out of buy/sell decisions, rebalancing is a crucial strategy for portfolio management for individual investors.

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