Financial Academia and the Street – A Comprehensive Disconnect

1994 AD.

My friends in the Physics Department of the University of Konstanz, Germany, were busy trying to increase the number of holes on a silicon strip.

This was nanotech research in its advanced stage.

Nanotech saw successful implementation in the real world, though the explosion is yet to come. Nevertheless, the key words here are successful implementation.

Successful implementation on the street is only possible when a research model is practical.

Financial academia time and again delivers impractical models and is then surprised when they meet with failure on the street.

Let’s take the case of the Long Term Capital Management hedge fund. Nobel laureates ran it. They did not incorporate the possibility of a sovereign debt default in their model. So sure were they of themselves, that they went on to buy billions of dollars worth of derivatives, leveraging themselves to the hilt. Their total leverage in the end stood at 250:1. The sovereign debt default by the Russian government in 1998 triggered the LTCM fund to go belly up, and with it disappeared the life-savings of thousands of trusting investors. The ripple effects of this disaster almost knocked the world’s financial system off its platform. Talk about disconnect.

Currently, we are seeing the effects of another disconnect in action.

The Euro was conceived on the basis of hundreds of PhD theses and tons of post-doctoral research. What the researchers couldn’t possibly incorporate in their models were some basic human and emotional facts.

For starters, let’s try the Greeks. They like to retire early and work lesser than their Eurozone colleagues. Their bankers are gullible and not too street-smart, and have made some really bad bets.

Italians like to take short-cuts. They like to over-price and under-cut.

Germans like to go the whole hog. They are punctual and more environment-conscious. They do not like subsidizing those who don’t work for it.

French farmers want to sell their milk for its proper price. They and the majority of their nation dislikes subsidizing others who might not deserve subsidy.

One could go on. The list is endless.

How does one incorporate such realistic “human” stuff in mathematical models?

One can’t.

Mathematics doesn’t possess the language to reflect such human and emotional factors.

So what do these theses contain, upon which the Euro has been built. Other, disconnected stuff, no realistic, street-related emotional / human factors of value.

What we’re seeing is real disconnect in action. Financial academia is way out of its depth on the European street or for that matter on any other street. It should lay off from the street so that further disasters are prevented.

Let’s hope and pray that the Euro-chapter does not meet with a harmful end.

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A Balancing Act Called Time

Why am I so obsessed with the phenomenon called time?

Because time is the long-term investor’s secret weapon.

I believe that a portfolio comes into its own after 7 years of being built drop by drop.

In this initial period, the portfolio tries to find balance. Losers get established, but so do winners.

Once it has been established that a scrip is a loser, the portolio tells you to get rid of it every time you look at the portfolio. It’s the red ink on the losing portion of the porfolio that speaks to you. And the passage of time can even give you the opportunity to sell a loser for a lucrative price.

Eventually, winners stand out. Their black ink on the winning side of the portfolio asks you to buy into them again. And once again your dear friend time gives you the opportunity to buy into a winner at a reasonable price.

Finally, the portfolio has excreted all losers and now consists of candidates you’d consider rebuying into at the right price during the passage of time.

This is called a balanced winning portfolio. It is balanced because some winners are cheaply priced in it and some are expensive. You currently want to be buying into the cheap winners.

The moment your criteria point out that a winner is turning into a loser, you look for the next exit opportunity for this scrip. And time will give you this, i.e. a chance to sell this scrip at a great price.

So, use your secret weapon. Everyone knows about time but almost nobody uses it like a weapon. That’s why it’s a secret weapon. Use it.

While building up your portfolio and navigating it through, take your time.

Is the Middle-person History?

Motivations…

are the propellors of life.

One can’t be an expert at everything. So one hires others to do stuff for one.

Of course one has to make it worth the other person’s while.

And the person you’ve hired needs to do the best possible job for you.

This used to be the pattern in the business of money. After the turn of the century, things started going haywire.

The middle-person in the business of money used to be a long-term wealth enhancer. His or her primary motivation was the creation and appreciation of your wealth.

Now, his or her focus is on the commissions generated by maximal short-term churning of your portfolio. This is dangerous for you.

I don’t know any wealth-manager who will share your loss with you. If earlier the loss would be felt only emotionally / morally by your wealth manager, even that is gone. So now, there’s nothing that’s stopping investment advice from becoming a function of the commission offered to the wealth manager. If a product offers more commission, that’s the product being recommended.

Where does that leave you?

Frankly, I feel that one is better off without an investment advisor. The web offers enough information on any and every investment product in existence. All you need to do is invest your time.

No time, you say? Who’s money is it? Yours, right? Then you need to jolly well take out the time. Only you can do justice to the proper, balanced and judicious investment of your funds.

So come on, snap out of any laziness. One hour a day to carve out a trajectory for your hard-earned money is all that’s required. If for nothing else, do it for your kids.

Are you a Pig?

Pigs get slaughtered.

Are you a pig?

Don’t know the answer?

See if you fit into what the market defines as a pig. Be honest to yourself.

A pig is a crowd-follower. He (for convenience purposes, I’m using “he”) doesn’t use his God-given brain. A pig generally enters into an investment in the late stages of a trend. What pushes him into entering is that nagging feeling of missing the bus.

The pig is most interested in knowing what others are doing, and gets swayed by flashy headlines. He doesn’t have a market outlook and blindly follows tips. He panics at the bottom and sells for maximum loss. The pig doesn’t exercise any holding power, even if he might possess it.

If you find yourself fitting into any of these patterns, please get a grip on the situation before it’s too late. Slow down. Start getting to know yourself. Do your own research. Slowly build a market-view. And then invest according to this newly found but solid perspective.

There are many ways to limit risk. The stop-loss and the systematic investment plan are two, for starters. Incorporate such risk-limiting factors into your trading style. Slowly build up an indestructable approach through trial and error.

Yes, make mistakes, because they are the only teachers in this game. Make mistakes with small amounts. A mistake should not be able to slaughter you, because now you are not a pig anymore.

Zoning in on the Zone

What’s your favourite sport?

Baseball?

Ok, let’s say we were watching Babe Ruth hitting a home run. I know, I’ve got this habit of running up and down the axis of time. A little annoying, but please bear with it.

To hit home runs like a Babe Ruth, or for that matter to paddle sweep like Sachin Tendulkar, or to serve an ace like Roger Federer, a player needs to be in the Zone.

So what is this “Zone”?

Imagine a space where you are one with your environment. From within this space, your heightened senses are able to engulf any stimulus and respond appropriately to it as if on auto-pilot. Your reactions to your situation are “ideal”. If a ball is thrown at you, your nervous system motors your bat with perfect angle and speed to respond to the ball in a winning fashion. It’s as if your system is one with the trajectory of the ball and is anticipating its angle and speed. Such a mind-body space is called the Zone.

The Zone is multi-dimensional in nature. Beyond length, breadth and height, the Zone spans the dimension of potential. The Zone is capable of whizzing your mind-body continuum up and down the axis of time in a flash to select the best possible response to any and every given stimulus.

So how does one get into this Zone? If it were that easy, each one of us would be a Babe Ruth, or a Sachin Tendulkar, or a Roger Federer or for that matter a Warren Buffett. Obviously, getting into the Zone is privileged.

Practice helps. Immense practice. Of course talent has to be there. But what is talent? Nothing but the expression of latent potential accumulated by the mind-body continuum at an earlier point in its existence. And when the mind-body continuum accumulates potential, it has to work very hard for it. Nothing comes for free.

And is someone who has entered the Zone able to stay in it forever? Nope. Entering the Zone takes a build-up. Then in a flash one is in till external circumstances disturb one’s focus, which is when one is out of the Zone.

So what’s this got to do with the markets?

Well, try trading the markets from inside the Zone and you’ll see.

Enemies of the State

What’s with me?

Why am I coming up with titles of songs or movies as headings for my blogposts?

Well, I need to grab your attention. It’s the age of minute attention-spans. I need to catch whatever window I have to make u interested in reading this stuff.

If investing is your territory, then hurry (which spoils the curry) is the enemy of your state. Innately, you will feel an urge to get into a winning investment. If you can overcome this urge, you’ll have come a long way. You’ll actually make proper investments, at pivotal points on the price versus time axis.

If trading is your territory, the enemy of your state is to be found within too. Here, it’s the lack of willingness to get out of a losing trade. If you can train yourself to cut a losing trade after a stop is hit, again you’ll have come a long way, and your account will reflect good trading profits soon enough.

Slowly, it’s becoming clear that trading and investing are two ends of a spectrum, mirror images with opposite domain rules.

Please don’t mix trading with investing, or vice-versa, or you’ll ruin whatever you are doing.

I’m not saying don’t do both. It’s a free world. Do both. Fine. But confined within separate portfolios please, both physically and in the mind. And slowly, one after the other, till you can handle both ends of the spectrum simultaneously.

Or do you think that you can build Rome in one day?

Investing in the Times of Pseudo-Mathematics

First, there was Mathematics.

Slowly, Physics started expressing itself in the language of Mathematics with great success. Chemistry and Biology followed suit.

The subject of Economics was feeling left out. Its proponents wanted the world to start recognizing their line of study as a natural science. So they started expressing their research results in the language of Mathematics too.

Thousands of research papers later, it was pointed out that what mathematical Economics was describing was an ideal world without any anomalies factored in.

The high priests of Economics reacted by churning out a barrage of research papers which factored in all kinds of anomalies in an effort to describe the real world.

Where there’s money, there’s emotion. The average human being is emotionally coupled to money.

Either Economics didn’t bother to factor in the anomaly called emotion, or it couldn’t find the corresponding matrix in which it could fit human emotions like greed and fear.

And Economics started getting it wrong in the real world, big time. The Long-Term Capital Management Fund (run by Economics Nobel laureates as per their pansy and sedantry office-table cum computer-programmed understanding of finance) collapsed in 1998, with billions of investor dollars evaporating and the world’s financial system coming to a grinding halt but just about managing to keep its head above water. It was a close brush with comprehensive disaster.

The human being forgets.

The last leg of the surge in dotcoms in 1999 and the first quarter of 2000 did just that. It made people forget their investing follies.

What people did remember though was the high of the surge. Investors wanted that feeling again. They wanted to make a killing again. Greed never dies.

And Economics rose to the occasion. This time it was not only pseudo, but it had gotten dirty. Its proponents were not researchers anymore, they were investment bankers, who had hired researchers to develop investment products based on complex pseudo-mathematical models that would lure the public.

Enter CDOs.

For just a few percentage points more of interest payout, investors worldwide were willing to buy this toxic debt with no underlying and a shady payout source. People got fooled by the marketing, with ratings agencies joining the bandwagon of crookedness and giving a AAA rating to the poisonous products in question.

All along, the Fed (with the blessing of the White House) had been encouraging citizens to “tap their home equity”, i.e. to take loans against their homes and then to invest the funds in the market. (The Fed creates bubbles, that’s what its real job is). And the Fed, the White House, the leading investment banks, the ratings agencies and the toxic researchers were all joint at the hip, a very powerful conglomerate creating financial weather.

So, from 2003 to 2007, there was liquidity in the world’s financial system, and a lot of good money was invested in CDOs. Nobody really understood these products properly, except for the researchers who came up with them. Common sense would have said that something with no base or underlying will eventually collapse as the load on top increases. And there was no dearth of load, because the same investment banks that sold the CDOs to the public were busy shorting those very CDOs (!!!!!), with Goldman Sachs taking the lead. So a collapse is exactly what happened.

This time around, the now pseudo and very, very dirty economics (almost)finished off the world’s financial system as it stood. It was revived from death through frantic financial-mathematical jugglery and a non-stop note-printing-press, with the Fed looking desperately to bury the damage by creating the next bubble which would lure good money from new investors in other parts of the world which were less affected for whatever reason.

That’s where we stand now. Certain portions of the world’s finance system are still on the respirator. Portions are off it, and are trying to act as if nothing happened, shamelessly getting back to their old tricks again.

I get calls reguarly from Merrill Lynch, Credit Suisse, StanChart and other investment banks. The only reason why Goldman hasn’t called is probably because my networth is below their cold-call limit. Anyways, it doesn’t matter who let the dogs out. Point is, they are out. And they are trying to sell you swaps, structures, forwards, principal protected products, what-have-yous, you name it. I remain polite, but tell them in no uncertain terms to lay off.

As a thumb rule, I don’t invest in products I don’t understand.

As another thumb rule, I don’t even invest in products which I might eventually understand after making the required effort.

As the mother of all thumb rules, I only invest in products that I understand effortlessly.

That’s the learning I got in the 2000s, and I’m happy to share it with you.