You Shall Not Pass: Determination and Boredom in ‘Range-bound’ markets

“You Shall Not Pass.” This was famously used in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of The Lord of the Rings. In the novel as well as in the movie based on it, the wizard Gandalf declares staunchly, “You shall not pass!” while blocking the Balrog (a demonic creature). A bit of googling reveals that the phrase was originally used during World War I, during the Battle of Verdun, by a French General, Robert Nivelle. It has since been used as a slogan or a war-cry to express determination to defend a position against an enemy.

You-shall-not-passIt was this kind of determination that was required today in the Lords Cricket Test that India lost to England. Nobody quite strongly said “You Shall Not Pass” to the English bowlers, and it was a matter of time before it was wrapped up.

For the past few months, the market too seemed to be tied in a deadlock with the bulls and the bears saying ‘you shall not pass’ to each other, and not allowing either to get the upper hand. It has been a time when most business channel anchors use the term “range-bound” so often. It is so uninteresting to them to wake up every day in the morning, cover the hectic activity minute to minute, and finally it all ends up being ‘range-bound’ activity with ‘stock-specific’ action. There have been event after event created – from seemingly important ones like release of inflation numbers, quarterly results, IIP numbers, credit policy, Greek crisis, oil prices, European debt crisis, Chinese slowdown to tactical issues like expiry of the monthly series and daily volume turnovers. But the net result for the market has essentially been status quo. The end of every event makes everyone look forward to the next one – but the market again says – You shall not pass – I stay where I am – ‘range-bound’.

For an individual investor, perhaps neglecting all the action (or net inaction if you may say so) continues to be the best strategy. Lethargy bordering on sloth remains the best policy. The formula remains the same – fix your long term asset allocation, select and regularly keep adding to those assets, and rebalance once in a while when there are major moves. To everything else that tries to distract you from this path – the response should be – You shall not pass.

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Why Having Fixed Income is Important for Portfolio Goals

The best portfolio strategy for an individual investor is to start by setting a prudent desired asset allocation between risky equity assets and fixed income that the investor is comfortable with and is sustainable, and implementing it by a continuous timely re-balancing of the portfolio. This would mean selling a certain percentage of the equity part when equities have done well, and buying the equivalent fixed income part, thereby resetting the asset allocation to the desired level, and vice versa.

fixedbondsstocksOne of the requirements of implementing this strategy is to have substantial holding of the portfolio (50% to start with) in fixed income or debt funds. Unless one has that holding, it is not possible for the investor to take advantage of low market levels with timely re-balancing. One of the chief advantages of this strategy is not purely mathematical or higher returns, but psychological – related to the mental stability that the average individual investor will experience in the face of falling markets. And if he is in that state, it is likely that he will not only continue investing, but if he has the temperament and discipline, he will also shift fixed income instruments to equity at a time when market levels are low – thus enhancing long-term portfolio returns. This strategy of holding fixed income to some extent when equities are going through the roof also will give him the ammunition to do the right kind of re-balancing when equities tank, and will ensure that like other investors hurt in the crash, he will not run away from the market.

But that also means that when equities are running high, the investor has to be content (and can get a bit impatient) with lower returns due to the debt component. This will take considerable will power and temperamental maturity to stick to, even for the most disciplined individual investors – at least in the initial years of their experience.

So does fixed income play a role or is it only for fuddy-duddy’s to hold? That is a question best answered by the investor himself. But in my experience it does play a role – though that role diminishes as the equity portion of the portfolio increases specially after the investor has seen a couple of economic cycles. So the best path may be to start with an ideal, conservative allocation of 50:50 in the initial few years of investing. The investor will inevitably face the mentally tough situations of large market falls, and get tested. In such situations, the investor is likely to experience and observe his own behavior – whether he falls prey to market vagaries by selling his equity holdings, and stopping further equity investments; or whether he focuses on his asset allocation and shifts some of his debt holdings to equity to re-balance, thus taking advantage of lower market levels. Similarly, he is also likely to go through easier, seemingly feel-rich market situations when equities go through the roof, and see for himself whether he has the mental orientation to sell equities and shift to debt, or ends up going with the crowd increasing his equity exposure.

After having gone through a few such situations in the initial few years, the role that debt funds play in an individual investor’s portfolio is likely to be self-evident. In case he is actually investing regularly with increasing income levels with time, and has gone through a couple of market cycles, it may then be prudent for such an investor to progressively reduce the percentage allocation to debt. Simply because he is confident that he can handle market volatility easily, and secondly because, his portfolio is likely to have reached a size where the effects of re-balancing will likely give diminishing returns.

So yes – debt funds or other fixed income instruments do play a definite role throughout an individual investor’s lifetime. It plays a larger role in the initial years when the effect of asset allocation and re-balancing need to be proven and seen by the investor himself. Unless an investor has fixed income investments, it is not possible to take advantage of market falls by making tactical shifts to equity – thus losing out on long-term portfolio returns. Beyond the first few years, fixed income will still play a similar role where it acts as an income earning store of booked past profits, as well as a pool to access when lower market levels warrant a shift to equity. But the investor can potentially afford to be a bit more confident of his ability to handle market volatility at that stage, and progressively reduce the allocation to fixed income to enhance returns – while still maintaining the percentage of fixed income assets to a significant level. It may be prudent to start with 50:50 allocation initially, and over years and experience of making regular investments, and implementing the asset allocation and re-balancing strategy, progressively reduce the fixed income allocation – but perhaps, never dropping it below 25%. As market vagaries will still continue, and he will still need a store to take advantage of it – and in larger quantities to make an impact as his portfolio size increases.

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.”

Sunk Costs should not affect decision making

I had gone for a music concert yesterday evening with my wife. It was a great show – but it rained quite heavily a couple of hours before the show, and there were real chances of the show getting cancelled due to it. While at my house before starting, it was natural for us to think whether the show would happen, and if we should go – specially the distance being long, and traffic chock-a-block while the drizzle had subdued a bit. But the one thing that tilted the decision in favor of going was the fact that we had paid for the tickets in full already.

sunkCostSo what’s the point? Well – the point is that the fact that we had paid for the tickets should not have been the deciding factor. If the rains were heavy, and we had no chances of making it – that alone should have been the criterion. Because the money was gone anyway. It was a different matter that in the end the rain stopped completely, we got there on time despite the traffic, and the show was superb, and hence the risk was worth it – but sometimes it may not work out that way. And even if it does, the reason we took the decision should have been based on whether there was any risk in going or not – rather than because we had paid for the tickets. This is a common ‘sunk cost’ fallacy that a lot of investors are victims of.

Pretty similar situations are likely to arise very often in an investing lifetime. If you are stuck in a situation where a stock you bought falls a lot, assuming you are able to handle the notional fall, your immediate urge is to ‘average the price’ and takes over your thinking. In some cases, it may be the right decision, in fact over time, it may work out and end up being a smart move. But very often, the fact that you bought the stock earlier at a higher price weighs so heavily on you, that you do not evaluate, in enough detail, whether the fundamentals of the company have deteriorated, and if there is a higher risk in buying the stock now, even at the dropped price. There may be real reasons for the fall – and hence averaging out may not be the best strategy. But the ‘sunk cost’ trap comes into play, and affects your decision-making, urging you to average out – rather than buying as a result of a more rational analysis where a purchase at a lower price is deemed to be a sound investment decision irrespective of earlier transactions.

Similarly, assume that you are faced with a situation where you bought stock A and stock B for an equal amount, and a year later, you need 20% of the money invested for some reason. Stock A has gone up 30% and Stock B has fallen 10% by that time. It is likely that you will try to meet your requirements by selling Stock A – simply because you bought it at a lower price and it is 30% up. Again – that may be the ‘sunk cost’ phenomenon at play. The ideal way would be to evaluate the stocks again and then take a call on which one to sell in what quantity. If that is not possible, perhaps selling both to raise an equal amount may be a more rational decision. But the sunk cost paid for the stock weighs so heavily on the mind of the investor that it affects his decision-making, and more likely than not, he will raise money from the stock in which he is in at least some profit.

So what’s the way out of avoiding sunk cost traps? Looking at individual investments in isolation is the problem here – looking at the portfolio as a whole will likely lead to avoiding sunk cost traps. Re-balancing the portfolio (i.e. selling part of your winners and moving them to other assets) is a great long-term strategy, but only if it is set out as a deliberate strategy, and not if it is a result of a sunk cost trap. Hence, it is best if one makes a conscious effort to recognize the sunk cost behavioural trap, and ensure that decision-making is not being affected by the same. Like so many things in investing and finance, unfortunately, there is no clear answer here – on what exactly to do – but it is left best to an investor and his situation to come to a conclusion based on a clear awareness of the possibility of getting into a sunk cost trap.

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

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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