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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We have met the enemy, and he is us: Are you being your own enemy?

April 22 is Earth Day – and this was the slogan used on a cartoon poster on the first Earth Day in 1970, with the character Pogo saying – “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” While it still holds true in the context of mankind being the earth’s biggest enemy due to multiple reasons, I think the statement is strikingly true even when it comes to investors.

In market crashes, there is this unending search for who is to blame for it, and multiple theories abound on whose actions led to it. Every time the reasons for the crash are different in terms of the context of the economy, from Harshad Mehta to Technology Dot-com boom to Sub-prime crisis, but the culprits blamed are many, and the enemy is still not to be found. Investors lose money, get out of the market thinking that I cannot find the enemy here, I do not understand this game, and I am not playing it – in most cases, not quite realizing that the enemy can often be found within themselves.

The biggest enemy of an investor is the investor himself. And that has got to do with the emotions of fear or greed, and a lack of a plan (or if it exists, a lack of discipline to adhere to it). The reality is that investment is less about which stocks will rise or which funds to buy, and more about what is your plan and whether you are willing to stick to it. If the investor focuses his attention away from the markets and more towards what his plan is, with respect to his goals, he is making every effort to ensure that he stops being his own enemy. A simple plan that is not dependent on market movements charted out to meet his goals, and the discipline to adhere to it through thick and thin are his best friends.

We all play games like cricket or monopoly – and most players or teams will increase their chances of winning if they have a plan and stick to it. Some times one will have to make slight changes when unexpected things happen and your ability to withstand pressure will matter then, but the importance of a plan and sticking to it cannot be undermined and is paramount. For example, for a game of cricket, you may have a plan to go for the slog in the first 15 overs and then consolidate your position for the next 25 with wickets in hand, and then go for the kill in the last 10 overs. You may lose a few wickets more than expected, and have to modify the plan a bit, but if you still manage to hold on to the plan, you are more likely to reach your target. Or in monopoly, the plan is simply to buy sites, houses, exchange them for hotels, and wait for people to land there and keep paying you rent or buying it from you – so that you get rich. You may get unlucky, and someone else might get the prized sites sometimes, but there is a clear plan to take if you want to win.

In the investment markets, the reason most people are their own enemies is because they do not have a clear plan. So the answer is simple – figure out what strategy or strategies work best for you given your goals, make a plan around them, and have the discipline to stick to that plan. Market prediction becomes irrelevant when an investor has a plan prepared. Market movements help him then only to the extent of assessing if any actions are needed in the context of his plan when the movements happen – and in most cases, irrespective of whether they are up or down – they are likely to be more than welcome for the investor. The search for an enemy will then reduce, as he is likely to see none!

How to use Diversification to reduce 3 types of risks

The core objective of diversification is to reduce risk – the idea being that peaks and troughs in a specific investment does not affect overall portfolio return objectives.

diversification-risk

If one defines risk less as volatility, and more as a either a complete or partial, but permanent loss of capital, then an individual investor would be well-advised to consider diversification to reduce risk of a few primary types:

1. Asset Market or Systematic Risk: What if I am invested in the wrong asset class or market? This is best reduced by a prudent asset allocation decision. Investors should identify different types of asset classes that they want to be invested in along with ideal target percentages in each asset class. This will minimize the impact of being invested in the wrong asset class.

2. Unsystematic Risk: What if I choose the wrong stock or bond or property? This is best reduced by investing in a pool of candidates within the same asset class. So if it is equities, it is best to be invested in a bucket of unrelated good businesses, or in commodities or real estate, again try and be invested in unrelated asset candidates. This will minimize the impact of being invested in the wrong securities.

3. Timing risk: What if I invest at the wrong time? Well – you may have a well-diversified pool of securities in a well adjusted portfolio of asset types, but what if you invest at the peak of the markets? This is best reduced by making periodic investments in the assets of your choice, so that timing risk is reduced. This will minimize the impact of being invested in any asset at purely the wrong time.

For individual investors, more than chasing returns, if prudence is exercised in constructing a portfolio with the objective of reducing risk of the above three types, there are good chances that the returns will take care of themselves.

How to handle volatility: Creating a mindset

I have often  found that for an individual investor, the toughest thing to deal with in stock markets is volatility. And by volatility – though it means fluctuations on both sides, what is tough to deal with is basically crashing stock prices. Financial theories have often equated risk to volatility – which may have some sense when you have a need to regularly evaluate the value of your portfolio, but is perhaps otherwise meaningless for an individual investor.

handlingvolatility

The all encompassing mindset of an individual investor has to be that of preparation for crashes. While investing in the stock markets, be it through mutual funds or directly, the dominant mindset needs to be that of being prepared for at least a 30% cut at any point in time. That mindset prepares you better to deal with it when it comes.

The advantage of such a mindset is to ensure some degree of rational thinking when the crash happens, even though there may be butterflies in the stomach. Inevitably that happens. In such a scenario, I have found the Ben Graham corollary of thinking of the stock market as an emotional guy called Mr Market whose moods keep fluctuating to be most valuable. This moody guy comes up everyday and offers you a price for your businesses. You are free to buy from him, or sell to him at that price whenever you want; and best of all, you are free to ignore him if you choose to. He will still come back tomorrow. Getting these two things into your mindset – that of expecting crashes, and thinking of stock markets as an emotional guy Mr Market – are the basic starting points in your battle against volatility.

Let’s say you manage to do that – the toughest task of all. After that, deciding what to do when stocks crash becomes easier. And that depends on largely whether you have a plan on why you are in the markets in the first place. If you have, then you are likely to do whatever makes sense according to that plan. If you do not, then this crash could be a good opportunity to do so. In both cases, you are likely to be in a better position to then decide whether to buy from Mr Market, sell to him or simply ignore him.

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