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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5 Star Rated Advice: Deciphering the S&P US Downgrade

“Who is this S&P?” asked my South Indian friend Swami to my broker over a cup of coffee.

Swami, who generally spends time with his family over weekends, suddenly called me on Sunday afternoon, and said he wanted to meet my broker friend Jignesh who knew a thing or two about investing. I was not quite sure what it was about, but being a close friend, I arranged for the meeting. Swami seemed quite perturbed when he came home. “Arre – they are saying Indian market will fall because some S&P downgraded US. I want to understand why”, he explained as the reason for this sudden meeting, while we were leaving my house. So at around 6 pm, we met over coffee.

“Arre, it is a rating company”, responded Jigneshbhai. “Means?” queried Swami, not quite sure what a rating company does. “They provide ratings for different things, like companies, governments, anybody or anything that has a financial instrument or offer.” “Why?” – continued Swami, still not sure why something like that is needed by anybody.

Now Jigneshbhai thought it was time to really explain things properly. “Dekho – how you read reviews of movies in Times of India sometimes, and then decide whether or not to watch the movie. If it gets 5 star, it is a hit, so you go and watch it, if it is 1 star, it is a flop, and you don’t watch it. Like that, S&P provides star ratings to anyone who wants money – like companies, countries or anyone else. If it is AAA rating, people who have money, give them money easily, if it is lower, then they will think more, or charge more interest. Like that – understood?”

Finally, some spark dawned on my south Indian friend, who was otherwise quite a bright chap. But not fully lit up, he continued, “So that S&P is saying US has lesser money than earlier? So their economy is in trouble” “Something like that” responded Jigneshbhai, not quite wanting to get into detailed arguments about fiscal deficits, interest rates and recession, I assumed. He thought this was the end of the discussion, hoping he does not have to explain more, and quickly started asking me how are things at home and work in general.

But his hope was short-lived. After a few sips of coffee, Swami came back. “Arre Jigneshbhai – but sometimes I have seen that the same movie gets different ratings in different papers. Also, Times of India ratings are wrong also sometimes. They give 5 star and I watch the movie, it is rubbish. And they give 3 star, and movie becomes a big hit.” I could sense a mix of curiosity and optimism in Swami’s eyes as he asked this.

Now that the question was asked, my broker friend decided to go the whole distance and provide solace to Swami’s unsettled mind once and for all. “Yeah, sometimes, they can give 5 star to stuff that is rubbish, and low rating for good stuff too. Sometimes it matters, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it also depends on who the producer or star actor is – isn’t it? If the season is bad, sometimes all movies flop for the time being.” I could see that this confused my south Indian friend a tad bit more, as he lost keeping track of the metaphors.

Continuing, my broker friend said, “But why do you worry about it? If a good movie gets a 2 or 3 star rating, its opening may suffer, but if it is good, people will decide for themselves, and go and watch it later anyway, no? So – if companies continue to increase profits, they will become hits, people will buy their shares and markets will go up, else they will become flop shows. So, you just focus on selecting good movies to watch and good companies to put money on” laughed Jigneshbhai, giving my south Indian friend 5 star advice.

Finally as we finished our coffee and left, he added, “The world is worried because the US went from AAA to AA+. Rather than worry about the US getting downgraded, I wish someone in our country worried about how we will upgrade from our BBB rating.”

Of Skill, Temperament and The Wall: Investing Lessons from Rahul Dravid’s batting

A couple of days back I was privileged to watch one of the best recent displays of classical Test Match batting by Rahul Dravid. That day (as so many times in the past too), Dravid secured a painstaking century on a minefield of a pitch to get India into a position of victory. He has done so earlier on similar pitches against much lethal bowling and in worse team situations. What is amazing is he was never directly focused on getting the runs. Runs seemed to be incidental outputs. His singular focus was to handle each ball as it comes, survive and score when possible – which in turn led to the century and eventually set up India’s victory. Dravid has been following that approach for the past 15 years, ball after ball, match after match, year after year – and it is no surprise that he is India’s second highest run getter in Tests.

dravid1Well – this note is not about his achievements or why he remains my favorite Test batsman. This is about the approach he brings to batting. There is so much to learn for individual investors from the way Dravid bats. If only one thinks of oneself as Dravid, and everything around him as the markets – the pitch, the bowls coming down, the excitement,  the team situation, one will realize the value of his approach and its application in the area of investing.

Dravid’s approach to batting is akin to Graham’s or perhaps even Buffett’s approach to investing . The first rule is never lose your wicket i.e. never lose money. The second rule is always follow the first rule. His expertise and experience in handling pitches like Sabina Park is tremendous, but he is still a student. He still does not know what exactly it has in store – i.e. which ball will seam and which will bounce, and does not try to pre-judge. Very much akin to the vagaries of the market which are futile to predict. His mind is almost trained with a plan for every over that sounds like – leave, leave, defend, leave, score, defend. His patience wears off the bowlers, so that they start bowling to where he wants them to.  dravid2

They try out-swingers which he leaves even if slightly off line, bouncers which he ducks without any ado, inswingers and short pitched balls which he gets behind and defends solidly. And finally he gets a wayward delivery on his legs which he flicks, or one that is wide outside the off stump which he drives. The entire process and journey by which he collects his runs and builds his innings is amazing, and more or less guaranteed to provide success if anyone could follow it well.  Wickets keep falling and other batsmen score faster with boundaries from the other end, but when Dravid is at the crease, he is still thinking – leave, defend as his natural choices by default, and only if the ball is in his zone, he scores. And those opportunities surely come more often than not. When everyone around him is struggling – including the bowlers unable to comprehend what the ball will do next on this pitch, fielders bored with nothing seemingly happening, and non-strikers flashing their bats in a bid to do something – Dravid is patiently batting – in his zone.

dravid3Isn’t the experience that normal individual investors have in the market similar to what batsmen face at pitches like Sabina Park most of the time? Sometimes you do have belters in big bull runs where you just get bat to ball, and it flies to the boundary. Investors that invest the way Dravid bats may temporarily look like fools on such belters. But most of the time, the markets are pitches like Sabina Park. You never know which way it will go. Defend or Leave is perhaps the best option for most individual investors on most deliveries thrown at them. Patience is then the biggest virtue, specially when you have a long innings to play. And when the market wears out and throws you a sitter, you grab it and accumulate your runs. If you do this ball after ball, match after match, year after year, through multiple economic cycles, good form or bad, a couple of things are sure. It is very unlikely that you will get out on a bad ball i.e. you are unlikely to suffer huge losses due to making bad investments. Most investors never recover or get back to markets after that. And finally, it is very likely that you will end up with a tally like Dravid’s by the time you are done.

Why Compounding is The Best Kept Secret of Investing Success

It has been a while since I wrote here, and the reason was that I was away for a nice family vacation. It was a truly wonderful experience, in the midst of good weather, the beauty of nature and great company – a meeting of like minds, a time to relax, the agenda being no agenda.

It made me wonder whether having no agenda is the reason one enjoys vacations so much more than work. 🙂 We had a number of long unhurried discussions on everything from work, investing, achievements to marriage, travel and life itself. That brings me to one of the topics we discussed and the key topic of today’s post – the stark similarity between what I reckoned to be the driver of success in investing as well as achievement – the single magic phenomenon of compounding.

einstein-compound-interest-rule-of-72Everyone knows that Einstein called compound interest the eighth wonder of the world. Most people would also have heard the story of the poor farmer who robbed the rich king in less than three months, when he asked to be given food starting with a single grain today, just doubling the number of grains every day. A recent book called “Outliers” had a similar “Compounding” explanation for super achievement. The author argued that there was no real secret to superlative achievement – people whom he called “Outliers” going by the statistical term. While we always like to give credit of super success to things like inborn talent, genius or luck, the answer in the author’s view was a set of circumstances that simply led the “Outliers” to put in the number of hours required to be “Outliers” – and in his view, what looks like genius starts surfacing after 10000 hours of working at the same thing.  Which means most “Outliers” need to start early in life in their area of work, need to really love that thing a lot to be able to put in the necessary daily grind, and need to consistently keep at it for a long time to reach a level of excellence that looks like genius to other normal individuals.

That does not seem too different from the drivers of investing success. For compound interest to work, one needs to give it sufficient runway, which means start early. Secondly, unless one really loves finding a good deal or is wired with the right temperament to go through inevitable ups and downs of the economy, one is unlikely to keep at it. And finally, the true effects that start looking like investing genius, sometimes simply due to the mathematical magic of compounding – will start coming in only when keeps doing it for a long period of time.

So the key takeaway is that – whether it is compounding for investment success, or compounding of effort for super achievements, there seem to be three common drivers:

Start Early, Love the Journey, Keep at It for long periods of time.

The sad reality is very few people are so placed to be able to meet all the three drivers perfectly. That is, perhaps, the reason why we have so few super achievers and so few super investors.

How to decide which type of investor you should be

At the heart of any investment strategy is a key decision that the investor needs to make right at the start. This decision could change based on life circumstances and priorities (hopefully not based on swinging moods), but once made, it is important for investors to stick to that. And that decision is what type of investor should you be?

I mention this as a decision that the investor must make, because a lot of current advise seems to try and answer the question – what type of investor are you? rather than what type of investor should you be? The former, I think, is a wrong question to ask – likely to end with the right answers to the wrong question. Very often, in response to this wrong question, investors will end up with the right answers that provide characteristics like aggressive, moderate and risk-averse, derived on a questionnaire around mental make-up, age, income level, etc. Whereas, if one shifts the onus on the decision to be made by the investor – on what type of investor should I be – the next question that comes up will be – how should I decide that? Now that’s a good question to ask.

decidingwhichtypeofinvestor

The answer to that is provided by legendary value investor Benjamin Graham in his investment classic  “The Intelligent Investor”.  That decision should be taken based on a simple criteria: Am I willing to put in more effort for more returns? If that is the case, I would be an aggressive (or enterprising) investor. If that is not the case, I would be a defensive investor, and should be happy with lower returns.

Very simple – like all other things in life. If you are willing to work for it, you deserve higher returns, else be happy with lower returns.

This may seem like a simple decision to make – but is not easy to stick to. A lot of investors end up trying to be both, and often with bad results. As Graham says, there is nothing like a part-time enterprising investor, because one does not know what one doesn’t know, till experience teaches it. But that is a discussion for another day.

The key is – to take this decision on what type of investor you should be, and sticking to it. Your circumstances may change in which case you may make a conscious decision to change your type. But it should be like a switch – on or off. This decision will have a bearing on the kind of portfolio that should be cultivated. Anything in between may provide excitement, but may not provide investment results.

Warren Buffett in India: The Wisdom and Simplicity

Warren Buffett, the legendary investor and among the richest people on earth is in India – partly for his philanthropic activities, partly to assess investment ideas in India. But that’s not news. He is already more than a legend, and while his investing styles have been dissected and studied many times over, this being the first time he is in India – the whole business press is all into it.

But what is amazing when I see some of his interviews or interactions is that when it comes to investing tenets, he has basically the same things to say! That’s true – and I mean it in a truly appreciative sense, not derogatory. Most of it he has been sharing with his shareholders over the past 40 plus years in much detail, and is very much in the public domain. That’s because – the truth, perhaps, is – while one may try to dig into his investment gems and reasons for his stupendous investing success – he has more or less the same key things to say when it comes to investing success. They circle mostly around evaluating businesses that you understand and are confident have a great long lasting competitive advantage; and buying them at a reasonably low price and holding them for as long as that remains true. It is quite amazing that the entire business press asks him so many questions about world economy or India’s growth story or value of dollar and what not; and is looking for snippets on these topics, and he generally has nothing much to say, many times shies away from it or simply refuses to forecast the future. So you have this whole business press waiting for crystal ball advice, and what you get is basically buy great businesses at good prices and hold them! Luckily (for the press and audiences) he has an amazing honesty and sense of humor when he talks, which leaves opportunities for some quotes for the business press – things like Buffett would like to be reborn as Sophia Lauren’s boy friend and all that! Small mercies!

Anyway, it may actually be true that – perhaps that is all there is to investing success! Buy great businesses at good prices and hold on to them as long as those characteristics stay! Of course, you could spend a lifetime discussing what ‘great businesses’ are and how to identify them, or what is ‘good prices’, or what ‘hold as long as those characteristics stay’ means – but that is a different story. Beyond that – Everything else might perhaps be some shade of noise.

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