Breaking News: Get down on your knees and pray during market falls!

Breaking News: Get down on your knees and pray!

It is this advice from a well known investment expert that led to a huge crowd of men and women and couples in their twenties and thirties sitting down in prayer in front of the Bombay Stock Exchange on Dalal Street in South Mumbai today.

It was a dream come true for investors when the Nifty closed below 4700 for the first time since Oct 2009. Thankfully, RBI’s credit policy did not pull the markets up, therefore providing prices that were not available for the past 25 months for investors to buy. Experts suggested that with the global turmoil continuing and a solution to India’s domestic problems not in sight, they were optimistic that investors will continue to enjoy wonderful prices to buy stocks of great businesses for some more time.

“I think given the global scenario, the party will continue for some more time”, a reliable source was heard saying. An unexpected recovery in Europe and the US may spoil the buying party, so investors should brace against that. But the likelihood of that happening seems low, so it is an optimistic scenario for investors who have not seen such prices for a while. “I have been waiting for this since the last one year”, an experienced investor interviewed by this channel said. “Prices may continue to get better over the next few months if global turmoil, the domestic situation and our government cooperates. So I am keeping my fingers crossed.”

Investors who missed the discount sale three years back were being advised to look at what’s on offer and take advantage of these prices. A young man, who missed the last mega sale in Dec 2008, and who had joined the mass prayers with his newly wed wife, said, “Well, I guess those 2008 kind of mega sale offers don’t come often. But then, this 2011 one is not that bad. So I am praying that the good going lasts.”

Yes, in fact, prayer! Experts had advised investors that they start with a prayer. A prayer that in these unpredictable times for the markets and the world economy, stock prices remain or get lower than where they are. Therefore, leading to the unprecedented flash mob prayer in front of the Bombay Stock Exchange. “If you’re planning to work for another 20 years, then pray for a proper market crash”, a reliable source was heard saying. In fact, a well-known expert went to the extent of saying, “if you are in your twenties or thirties with a steady income saving for retirement, get down on your knees and pray for a fall! And pray that it lasts!”

Are you Waiting for Godot when it comes to investing?

“Have you seen that play called ‘Waiting for Godot’?” asked the wealthy man living in the sprawling bungalow next to my house. He was known to speak sparingly and in a cryptic manner when he did. We had just met him at a common friend’s wedding reception.

“Have heard and read about it, but never got myself to watch the play,” I remarked.

“It could be called either funny or absurd or nonsensical on the one hand; or, it could be called philosophical, existential or even having a spiritual message on the other hand. I get reminded of it a lot when I see the constant chatter and commentary on the markets and economy in today’s media.”

The wealthy man looked up Wikipedia on his smart phone for Waiting for Godot and narrated to us what he found:

“Waiting for Godot follows two days in the lives of a pair of men who divert themselves while they wait expectantly and in vain for someone named Godot to arrive. They claim him as an acquaintance but in fact hardly know him, admitting that they would not recognize him were they to see him. To occupy themselves, they eat, sleep, converse, argue, sing, play games, exercise, swap hats, and contemplate suicide – anything ‘to hold the terrible silence at bay’.”

The wealthy man chuckled when he read that. He said “If you see or read the play, your first reaction would be ‘what kind of absurd play is this?’ It is about two men Vladimir and Estragon waiting for someone called Godot. There is a sequence of events that happen over the two days where we are shown three characters –  Pozzo and his slave dog Lucky who keep forgetting, and an unnamed boy who keeps getting messages from Godot. During the two days, many times the two men decide to leave, but every time say that they can’t as they are waiting for Godot. At the end of the two days, eventually no one knows who Godot is, and he never appears!”

Elaborating further, he continued, “I am just an audience, not an expert on the play, but I have found it funny, boring or profound based on my mood. People who study the play have called it everything from absurdist, meaningless, humorous, philosophical to a ‘representation of repetitiveness of life itself’ in which the two men represent mankind and Godot is God.” Obviously it looked like depending on how you saw it, there were multiple interpretations of it.

I asked him, “So why do you see parallels between the play and life in the markets?”

He said, “Indeed. most people seem to be like Vladimir or Estrogen, waiting for a Godot or a set of Godot’s who never come. And then there are the people who complicate things more than required – seeing patterns where none exist.”

“So what did the author actually mean when he wrote this play?” I asked eagerly, not quite sure I was able to comprehend it completely.

He smiled and replied, “You know, Beckett who wrote this play was always a bit cryptic and non-committal when asked this question. Beckett clearly realised that one of the reasons for the play’s success came down to the fact that it was open to a variety of readings and interpretations, and that this was not necessarily a bad thing. Beckett was actually surprised when people started analysing it, and had once remarked in honesty, ‘Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I can’t make out.’ Not very different from what we see around us in the markets, I guess – the complications, the analysis and interpretations, the lack of simplicity, the various characters, and the endless waiting for Godot.”

A Cryptic Cocktail: Mixing Cricket Commentary with Stock Markets and Investing

The wealthy man living in the sprawling bungalow near my house with his BMW and Mercedes speaks very sparingly. And whenever he speaks, it is quite cryptic. So one has to really concentrate when he is speaking, and think hard after he is done. So the other day when my South Indian friend Swami and I were just walking across from my house to get a coffee, we saw the wealthy man taking a walk with his dog. He knows Swami, who by now has had a number of ‘question-mark’ conversations with him in the past. So he wished me good evening, and this time before Swami could ask him anything, he just told him with a wry smile, “The situation is tense but under control.”

I first heard this term being used by the Mumbai police during the Mumbai riots in the early 1990’s. It was so conveniently cryptic and became so popular that the Home Ministry started using it. Now I think it has become the de-facto phrase used by government officials, specially Home Ministry ones, to describe, in an imprecise way, what is happening whenever there are riots, earthquakes, floods, strikes, accidents or anything remotely like those.

So I was a bit surprised when the wealthy man used it, not quite clear what he was referring to. So I took the liberty of asking him if he had some time for a quick coffee. The wealthy man does not easily say yes, but this time, he surprisingly did – so in a few minutes, we found ourselves chatting with him over a coffee.

After an awkward silence for a few minutes, my South Indian friend Swami had to ask something. He tends to lose his patience with Jigneshbhai, but with the wealthy man living in the sprawling bungalow, you cannot do that. So in polite language, he asked him for advice on the current state of the markets.

The wealthy man replied, “This match is very much in the balance now”. And added in his baritone voice, “It is not going to be easy for the batsman to get bat on to ball on this pitch.” Further, neglecting our confused looks, he continued, “It will provide assistance to the bowlers, but if the batsmen apply themselves, one can play a long innings.” I knew he spoke sparingly, and was cryptic most of the time, but this seemed out of context. So we thought he probably misunderstood the question – perhaps he heard matches instead of markets.

So Swami tried to explain – “Yes sir, but I was referring to the markets, not to the Champions league matches. I have already lost so much, would be great if you could throw some light on what to do next.”

This time, we thought we will hear some gems of wisdom. But the wealthy man continued. “Well, given the conditions, it should be good toss to lose”. This was getting a bit out of hand. Even I was starting to wonder what was happening here. But Swami was now getting a bit aggressive. He clarified, “Sir, I am losing money everyday in these volatile markets. You have been playing the markets for so many years. Should I sell and get out now?” Again with eager eyes, we were looking for some pearls of wisdom this time. And the wealthy man said, “We had a cracker of a game today, but at the end of it all, one will have to say that the team that kept its nerve better prevailed”.

This was getting too much to handle now, even for me. We were starting to fear if the wealthy man had lost it – maybe growing age and the stress of his wealth getting eroded at this stage in life was getting to him. Or perhaps he was watching too much of TV, and business and sports channels were getting mixed up in his head. Swami gave me a strong stare, almost warning me that he is going to stop having coffee with me. As if handling my broker friend Jigneshbhai was not enough, now he had this wealthy man from the sprawling bungalow to make sense out of.

So we started wrapping up with our coffee, and hoped that this was it. It did not seem to make sense to press the point now. Not wanting to take the discussion further, I asked for the bill, and while waiting for it, asked the wealthy man which team he was supporting in the Champions League. I casually added, “The Royal Challengers seem to be up to it this time, but you never know with them. The Mumbai Indians could spring up a surprise.”

I thought this conversation was now making sense. We were both talking about the same topic. At least we will leave on a sober note. No more mixing cryptic cocktails of cricket and markets, I thought. So as we left, we were stumped when the wealthy man threw another cryptic one. “Indeed, in these conditions, I am in support of investing in wonderful companies with good long term potential. For the true fan, this pitch is just what the doctor ordered.”

A Matter of Faith: The Role of Reason and Belief in Investing

“Can you guarantee it?” asked my South Indian friend Swami, when my broker Jigneshbhai asked him to hold on or add to his investments saying that markets will recover. Jigneshbhai said, “Boss, there are no guarantees, but they should recover eventually.”

Swami continued, “But when? For the last 4 years, the returns from my investment are less than 5% annually. I would have been better off with my fixed deposits. Today they give 9% at least. If you cannot give guarantees, what’s the use?”

This conversation was getting a bit heated. It always happens when it is about money. I continued sipping my hot coffee watching them talk.

Finally, Jigneshbhai got up in a rage, and asked, “You do your puja everyday Swami. Can your God guarantee that you will not die tomorrow?”

This was something Swami did not expect. This was about money, not God, he thought. “Don’t change topics”, he said in a disillusioned manner. Sensing that this was going awry, I intervened, and finally we changed topics and started talking about somewhat milder things like the weather, cricket and politics. Eventually a dissatisfied Swami left, as unhappy as he had come.

Jigneshbhai turned to me after Swami had left. “I will tell you boss, I have been in this profession for the past twenty years. Reason alone is not enough to invest. Beyond a point, you also need faith. And people like Swami have faith in everything else but the markets. Of course, markets do not cover themselves in glory to attract faith. But you must have some faith in the future. Who knows what will happen tomorrow. How can I give guarantees when God himself does not?”

He continued, still a bit angry. “You tell me, are there any guarantees that if you do your rituals, God will always oblige?” “Of course not”, I said nodding in agreement, hoping that this will cool him down. But he continued, “Similarly, there is a rationale that if you follow your investing ‘rituals’ well, the God of markets will oblige. But there are no guarantees.” “Right, makes sense”, I added, trying to fill the conversation up.

“And your friend Swami does not even follow the investing rituals.”, Jigneshbhai argued and continued, “Finally, at an individual level, it is a matter of faith.” I felt that I was hearing some words of wisdom from a true believer in markets.

I felt, perhaps, that is true in every sphere of life. Reason can get you ahead, but only so much. Like all other endeavors, reason is important as it sets goals, makes plans for you, helps you make the right choices and decisions. But there are no guarantees that it will work all the time. Beyond a point, and especially when the plans do not work as planned, finally, I guess, it is a matter of faith.

Are Markets Efficient and does it matter?

A lot of investing debate and styles of investing are supposed to emanate from this question. The roots of this debate are in an old financial theory called the Efficient Market Hypothesis – which says that all that is to know about a stock is reflected in its price at any point in time, so it is futile to analyze stocks as no one can do it. The very theory challenges human nature so much that it is no surprise that, depending on who you are and what your place is in the financial services industry, you are almost compelled to take a view on it – one way or the other.

marketefficient-garfield_dont_care_black_shirtBut for an individual investor, is it really relevant? Does it matter whether markets are efficient or not, or is it just another debate to confuse him? Again – like so many other things in investing, this may be a great question for experts to debate on, but for an individual investor, a wrong question with many right answers. For an individual investor, letting go on this debate on whether markets are efficient is the best choice. “I don’t know” and “It doesn’t matter” are the best responses. The answer to this question is said to determine whether you as an individual or a fund manager who manages your money can beat the market or not. Again – this is perhaps the wrong question. What if I decide that the markets are efficient and hence invest in Index funds, and then later (at the end of  a year or two) realize that there are lots of funds beating the Index? On the other hand, what if I decide the market are not efficient and hence invest in an Actively Managed fund or decide to manage my money myself, and then later realize that it has not beaten the Index? In other words, the market turned out to be not efficient, but so did my fund manager and my investing techniques!

So actually the prudent answer for an individual investor to the question on whether the markets are efficient or whether I or my fund manager can beat the Index is “I don’t know and it doesn’t matter”. Because the reality is, irrespective of whether they are efficient or not, it is practically impossible to predict in advance whether and/or which stock or which fund manager will beat an Index. Hence – “I don’t know and it doesn’t matter”. Well – I don’t know is fine, but an individual investor may ask why “it doesn’t matter”? It doesn’t matter because what matters more is to have an investment plan, asset allocation and re-balancing strategy in place. What forms part of those assets once you have a plan in place does not matter that much. So whether you choose an Index fund, or an individual stock or an actively managed fund within that asset allocation and re-balancing plan based on your answer to the question “Are markets efficient” may not matter much, at least if you are broadly close to market averages, and in so far as reaching your financial goals are concerned.

So – leave the debate of whether market are efficient to the experts to fight over and resolve. Post that, let them decide whether to focus on large caps versus mid caps; or to use fundamental analysis or technical analysis. For you as an individual investor, what matters more is a proper investment plan to reach your goals that is in line with risk profile, has the right asset allocation and re-balancing strategy in place, and the discipline to stick to it. Post that, you are free to keep deciding what assets to put into that plan, based on performance every year or every couple of years. If the markets turn out be efficient, you are free to move the actively managed fund and individual stocks out of that plan, and hold an Index fund.  If the markets are not efficient and you end up with a good fund manager (or if you yourself are able to beat the market) , good for you, as the stocks and funds you hold may beat the Index. And finally, if you realize that markets are not efficient, but your investment style or fund manager turn out to be equally inefficient :-), you are free to move that money to an Index fund!

So let the debate on Market Efficiency continue, and let the experts argue and make a case for your money. You as an individual investor are in an enviable position, because when asked your view, you can continue saying – “I don’t know and it doesn’t matter.”

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