Where to, Mr. Nath?

Last month, I scrapped my market-play system.

Happens.

Systems are made to be scrapped later.

One can always come up with a new system.

I love working on a new system.

It’s challenging.

What I want to talk to you about is why I scrapped my last system.

I found four accounting frauds, as I did my market research, all online.

You see, my last system worked well with honest accounting.

It had no answer to accounting frauds.

Also, I got disillusioned.

Are we a nation of frauds?

How does one deal with a nation of frauds?

More importantly, how does one play such a nation?

Does one invest in it? Or, does one sheer trade it?

Questions, questions and more questions. These encircle my mind as I work to put my new system together.

I am in no hurry to come up with an answer. A country like India deserves a befitting answer, and that it will get, even if the sky comes down on me while I put my system together.

Slowly, I started to think. How many systems had I scrapped before?

Hmmm, four or five, give or take one or two.

I have an uncompromising market rule of going fully liquid when I scrap a system.

Full liquidity is a tension-tree state. It allows one to think freely and in an unbiased manner. Being invested during volatility impedes one’s ability to think clearly and put a new system together.

Ok, so what answer would my new system have towards fraud?

All along, it was very clear to me that future market activity would be in India itself. Where else does one get such volatility? I am learning to embrace volatility. It is the trader’s best friend.

Right, so, what’s the answer to fraud?

Trading oriented market play – good. Not much investing, really. First thoughts that come to mind.

Buying above supports. Selling below resistances. Only buying above highs in rare cases, and trailing such buys with strict stops. Similarly , only selling below lows in even rarer cases, and again, trailing such sells with strict stops.

Trading light at all times.

Fully deploying the bulk of one’s corpus into secure market avenues like bonds and arbitrage. You see, bonds in India are not toxic. Well, not yet, and with hawks like the RBI and SEBI watching over us, it might take a while before they turn toxic. If and when they do start turning toxic, we’ll be getting out of them, there’s no doubt about that. Till they’re clean, we want their excellent returns, especially as interest rates head downwards. In India, one can get out of bond mutual funds within 24 hrs, with a penalty of a maximum of 1 % of the amount invested. Bearable. The top bond funds have yielded about 13 – 15% over the last 12 months. So, that 1% penalty is fully digestible, believe me.

With the bulk of one’s returns coming from secure avenues, small amounts can be traded. Trade entries are to be made when the odds are really in one’s favour. When risk is high, entry is to be refrained from. A pure and simple answer to fraud? Yes!

You see, after a certain drop, the price has discounted all fraud and then some. That’s one’s entry price for the long side. On the short side, after a phenomenal rise, there comes a price which no amount of goodness in a company can justify and then some. That’s the price we short the company at.

Of course it’s all easier said than done, but at least one thing’s sorted. My outlook has changed. Earlier, I used to fearlessly buy above highs and short below lows. I am going to be more cautious about that now. With fraud in the equation, I want the odds in my favour at all times.

These are the thoughts going on in my mind just now. Talking about them helps them get organized.

You don’t have to listen to my stuff.

I’m quite happy talking to the wall.

Once these words leave me, there’s more space in my system – a kind of a vacuum.

A vacuum attracts flow from elsewhere.

What kind of a flow will my vacuum attract?

Answers will flow in from the ether.

Answers to my burning questions.

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Can Anyone Match Our Financial Sentinels?

It was the aftermath of ’08.

There was blood everywhere.

In my desperation to get a grip on things, I was about to make yet another blunder.

The Zurich International Life pitch had found its way into my office through a leading private bank.

The pitch was fantastic.

I got sucked in.

Access to more than 150 mutual funds world wide…

No switching fee…

Switch as many times as you want…

Joining bonus…

Premium holiday after 18 months…

I quickly signed the documents.

What remained cloudy during the pitch was the 10-year lock-in.

Also, nobody mentioned that the exit penalty was exorbitant. I mean, as I later found out, the level of the exit penalty would make Shylock look like JP Morgan.

In the pitch, I found myself hearing that one could exit after 18 months upon payment of 9% interest p.a. on the joining bonus.

Nobody mentioned the full management fees, which I later calculated to be a staggering approximate of 7.75% per annum for myself, since I had opted for a premium holiday as soon as I could.

I mean, when about 7.75% was being deducted from your corpus each year, what in the world was the corpus going to generate? I found myself asking this question after four years of being trapped in the scheme.

I had soon realized that the pitchers had lied in the pitch. In the fine-print, there was no such clause saying that one could exit after 18 months upon payment of 9% interest p.a. on the joining bonus. If I escalated the matter, at least three people would lose their jobs. Naehhh, that was not my style. I let it go.

When I would look at interim statements, the level of deductions each time made me suspect that there were switching fees after all. I could never really attribute the deductions to actual switches, though, because the statements would straight-away show the number of mutual fund units deducted as overall management fees. If there were switching fees, they were getting hidden under the rug of management fees. Since the level of overall fees was disturbing me totally, I had this big and nagging suspicion that they were deducting something substantial for the switches, and were not showing this deduction openly in their statements.

When I compared all this to how Unit-Linked Insurance Plans (ULIPs) were handled in my own country, I was amazed at the difference.

In India, customer was king.

The customer had full access to the investment platform, and could switch at will from his or her own remote computer. Zurich did not allow me such direct access.

The expense-ratio in India was a paltry 1.5% – 2.0% per annum. Compare this to the huge annual deductions made in the case of my Zurich International Life policy.

Lock-ins in India were much lesser, typically three odd years or so.

Some ULIPs in India allowed redemptions during lock-ins, coupled with penalties, while others didn’t. Penalties were bearable, and typically in the 2 – 5 % (of corpus) range. Those ULIPs that did allow such redemptions only did so towards the latter part  of the lock-in, though. Nevertheless, lock-in periods were not long when compared to ten whole years, during which the whole world can change.

The debt-market funds paid out substantially larger percentages as interest in India when compared to the debt-market funds encompassed by Zurich International Life.

In India, deductions from ULIP premiums in the first few years (which were getting lesser and lesser each year due to legislature-revision by the authorities) were off-set by absence of short-term capital gains tax and entry/exit equity commissions upon excessive switching. This meant, that in India, short-term traders could use the ULIP avenue to trade without paying taxes or commissions. Whoahh, what a loop-hole! [I’m sure the authorities would have covered this loop-hole up by now, because this research was done a few years ago.]

ULIPs in India allowed at least 4 switches per annum that were totally free of cost. After that, switches would be charged at a very nominal flat rate of typically about the value of 2-9 USD per switch, which, frankly, is peanuts. I was suspecting that the Zurich fellows were knocking off upto 1% of the corpus per switch, but as I said, I didn’t see the math on paper. Even if I was wrong, their yearly deductions were too large to be ignored. Also, was I making a mistake in furthermore deducing that Zurich was deducting another 1% from the corpus each time the corpus changed its currency? I mean, there was no doubt in my mind that the Indian ULIP industry was winning hands-down as far as transparency was concerned.

In India, people in ULIP company-offices were accessible. You got a hearing. Yeah. Zurich International Life, on the other hand, was registered in the Isle of Man. Alone the time difference put an extra day (effectively) between your query and action. Anyways, all action enjoyed a T+2 or a T+3 at Zurich’s end, and the extra day made it a T+4 if you were unlucky (Indian ULIPs moved @ T+0, fyi & btw). Apart from the T+x, one could only access officials at Zurich through the concerned private bank, and as luck would have it, ownership at this private bank changed. The new owners were not really interested in pursuing dead third-party investments made by their predecessors, and thus, reaching Zurich could have become a huge problem for me, were it not for my new relationship manager at this private bank, who was humanitarian, friendly and a much needed blessing.

By now, I had decided to take a hit and exit. It would, however, be another story to get officials at Zurich to cooperate and see the redemption through. On her own level, and through her personal efforts, my diligent relationship manager helped me redeem my funds from Zurich International Life.  I am really thankful to her. Due to her help, my request for redemption was not allowed to be ignored / put-off till a day would dawn where really bad exit NAVs would apply. Zurich did have the last laugh, knocking off a whopping 30 odd percent off my corpus as exit penalty (Arghhh / Grrrrr)! Since I had managed to stay afloat at break-even despite all deductions made in the four years I was invested, I came out of the investment 30% in the hole. The moment it returned, the remaining 70% was quickly shifted to safe instruments yielding 10%+ per annum. In a few years, my corpus would recover. In less than 4 years, I would recover everything. In another two, I would make up a bit for inflation. Actually, the main thing I was gaining was 6 remaining years of no further tension because of my Zurich International Life policy. This would allow me to approach the rest of my portfolio tension-free.

The Zurich International Life policy had been the only thorn in my portfolio – it was my only investment that was disturbing me.

I had taken a hit, but I had extracted and destroyed the thorn.

It was a win for the rest of my portolio, i.e. for 90%+ of my total funds. Tension-free and full attention heightens the probability of portfolio prosperity.

Yeah, sometimes a win comes disguised as a loss.

When I look back, I admire the Indian financial authorities, who ensure that the Indian retail customer is treated like a king.

Retail customers in other parts of the world receive very ordinary treatment in comparison.

I know this from first-hand experience.

I don’t plan to invest overseas as long as our financial authorities continue to push such discipline into our financial industry.

I don’t often praise too much in India, but where it is due, praise must emanate from the mouth of a beneficiary. We are where we are because of our fantastic financial sentinels!

Three cheers for the Securities and Exchange Board of India, for the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority, and, of course, three cheers and a big hurray for the Reserve Bank of India.

A Critical Look at Debt on the Balance-Sheet

Borrowed money needs to be paid back.

Pray where is a company going to pay it back from?

From current reserves and /or earnings, of course.

Unless you do a Suzlon and restructure your 2 billion dollar debt.

When I hear the word “restructure”, I feel like puking.

By the way, one can even do a “Mallya”, and expect the government to pay off chunks of one’s almost 1.5 billion dollar debt.

By now, I’m really throwing up.

I mean, first, some people borrow. Then comes a spending frenzy. Then these people don’t want to pay back what they borrowed. Oh, sorry, some don’t even want to pay the interest back, let alone the principal.

Frankly, I don’t wish to invest in companies run by people who delay paying back their debt through maneuvering and manipulation.

I detest manipulation. Prefer it straight-forward.

You guessed it – I’m a debt-averse human-being. What pleases me most in a company is a debt-free balance-sheet. It is challenging to find debt-free companies that are able to grow freely and fast, and when one runs into such a company, it’s like a home-run. After that one waits for the right price, but that’s another story.

Most companies borrow. They wish to grow, and funds are not there, while opportunity is.

Fine. Borrow.

Then, show me that you want to pay back. On time. ( = integrity ).

Show me that you haven’t lost your marbles while borrowing, and have borrowed an amount which by no means risks the existence of your company. ( = balance ).

Furthermore, show me that you are creating value with the borrowed amount. ( = shareholder-friendliness ).

Show me, that after payment of interest on borrowings, you can still generate a reasonable earning per share. ( = diligence ).

That would make me want to invest in your company, despite your debt.

Oh, one more thing, I would only stay invested long-term in your company, if I see you decreasing your debt-burden year upon year. ( = like-mindedness, i.e. debt-aversion ).

Also, if any new debt taken on doesn’t fit the above criteria, I would look to exit. ( = over-confidence because of earlier successes ).

Once invested, keep rechecking the story every few months. Times are bad. If you don’t look, it is likely that a CEO will pull a stunt right under your nose. Yes, it’s totally possible that your investment doesn’t meet your criteria anymore, and that you are still invested. Don’t let that happen.

At least with regards to debt, have an exact check-list. If a company doesn’t meet your standards regarding debt, discard the company. During times of high interest-rates, large debt on the balance-sheet is like a raging fire which refuses to be stilled, and which can well terminate the existence of a company.

Your success as a long-term investor depends much on how you react to debt.

Here’s wishing you wary and successful investing!

Cheers!   🙂

Isn’t This Other Party Getting Too Loud?

We in India have decided to go for gold after the Olympics.

I mean, there’s a whole parallel party going on in gold.

What’s with gold?

Can it tackle inflation?

No.

Is there any human capital behind it?

No.

Meaning, gold has no brains of its own, right?

Correct.

Is there a storage risk associated with gold?

Yes.

Storage volume?

Yes.

Transport inconvenience?

Yes.

Price at an all time high?

Yes, at least for us in India. We’d be fools to consult the USD vs time chart for gold. For us, the INR vs time chart is the more valid one for gold, because we pay for gold in INR.

Getting unaffordable?

Yes.

No parameter to judge its price by, like a price to earning ratio for example?

No.

Then how am I comfortable with gold, you ask?

Right, I’m not.

Can I elaborate, is that what you are requesting?

Sure, it’s exorbitance knocks out its value as a hedge. A hedge is supposed to balance and stabilize a portfolio. Gold’s current level is in a trading zone. It is not functioning as an investor’s hedge anymore.

Why?

Because from a huge height, things can fall big. Law of gravity. And gold’s fallen big before. It doesn’t need to begin it’s fall immediately, just because it is too high. That alone is not a valid reason for a big fall, but the moment you couple the height with factors like improvement in world economics, turnaround in equities (if these factors occur) etc., then the height becomes a reason for a big fall. Something that can fall very big knocks out stability and peace of mind from an investor’s portfolio. The investor needs to bring these conditions back into the portfolio by redefining and redesigning the portfolio’s dynamics.

How?

By selling the gold, for example, amongst other things.

What’s a good time to sell?

Well, Diwali’s a trigger.

Right.

Then, there are round numbers, like 35k.

What about 40k?

Are you not getting greedy?

Yeah – but what about 40k?

Nothing about 40k. Let 35k come first. I like it. It’s round. It’s got a mid-section, as in the 5. It’s a trigger, the more valid one, as of now.

Fine, anything else?

Keep looking at interest rates and equities. Any fall in the former coupled with a turnaround in the latter spells the start of a down-cycle in gold.

Is that it?

That’s a lot, don’t you think?

I was wondering if you were missing anything?

No, I just want to forget about gold max by Diwali, and focus on equities.

Why’s that?

There are much bigger gains to be had in equities. History has shown us that time and again. Plus, there is human capital behind equities. Human capital helps fight inflation. What more do you want? Meanwhile, gold is going to go back to its mean, as soon as a sense of security returns, whenever it does.

And what is gold’s mean?

A 1 % return per annum, adjusted for inflation, as seen over the last 100 years.

That’s it?

Yeah.

And what about equities?

If you take all equities, incuding companies that don’t exist anymore, this category has returned 6% per annum over the last 100 years, adjusted for inflation.

And what if one leaves out loser companies, including those that don’t exist anymore.

Then, equity has returned anything between 12 -15% per annum over the last 100 years, adjusted for inflation.

Wow!

Yeah, isn’t it?

Getting Too Comfy For Our Boots, Are We?

What a party we are having in the debt-market, aren’t we?

Exceptional payouts, day after day, week after week, month after month, it’s almost going to be year after year.

Are you getting too comfortable? Lazy, perhaps?

Meaning to say, that when you can get a 10 % return after tax without having to move your behind for it, it is a very welcome scenario, right?

People, scenarios change.

It isn’t always going to be like it is at the moment.

Are you flexible enough to change with the scenario?

Or will you be lost in the current moment, so lost, that you will not recognize the signs of change?

What would be these signs? (Man, this is like spoon-feeding….grrrrrr&#*!).

Inflation begins to fall.

The country’s central bank announces back to back interest rate cuts.

Too lazy to read the paper? Or watch the news? Ok, if nothing else, your online liquid mutual fund statement should tip you off.

How?

The payout, dammit, it will have decreased.

Also, something else starts performing.

What?

Equity.

Smart investors don’t like the debt payout anymore. They start moving their smart money into value equity picks.

Slowly, media stops reporting about a gloomy economy. The buzz gets around. Reforms are on the way.

Foreign direct investment picks up. The media latches on to it. It starts speaking about inflows as if the world begins and ends with inflows.

Now, the cauldron is hot and is getting hotter.

Debt payouts are getting lesser and lesser. Equity is already trending upwards, and has entered the meat of the move.

If the trend contnues, a medium to long-term bull market can result.

There you have it, the chronology played out till just before the start of a bull market of sorts.

Be alert. Recognize the signs early. Be mentally in a position to move out of the debt market, if the prevailing scenario changes.

Otherwise…

… you miss a first run in equity. Boo-hoo. When stocks cool at a peak, and start falling, you make multiple wrong entries into them.

You get hammered by equity, having caught it on the down-swing.

You missed the correct entry time-point in equity because the debt-market made you too comfortable. You were late to act. When you acted, finally, you caught a correction, and took a hammering.

One or two more hammerings like that, and you’ll be off equity for the rest of your life.

And that, my dear friend, would be a pity.

Why?

Because, in mankind’s history, it is stocks that have given the best long-term returns. Not gold, not debt, not bonds, but stocks.

You need to approach them properly, and timing is key.

The Ugly Side of Leverage

Not too long a time ago, in an existence nearby, people saved.

Credit was a four letter word, or a six letter word, or whatever you want to all it, as long as you get my point.

People worked hard, and enjoyed the sweet taste of their labour.

They knew their networth on their fingertips, and there was no question of extending oneself beyond.

People were happy. They had time for their families. Words like sophistication, complicated and what have you had simpler meanings.

At the end of the month, as large a chunk as possible was pickled away.

For what?

Safety. Steady growth. For building a lifetime’s corpus. For the future generation.

Life was straight-forward.

Then came leverage.

At first, leverage was an idea that was looked down upon. People were slow to leave their safety zones.

Then they saw what leverage could do.

It could make possible a lifetime of fun. One could do things which were well out of one’s financial reach currently. Leverage could even buy out billion dollar companies.

All one had to do was to pledge one’s incoming for many, many years. If that didn’t suffice to fulfill one’s fun-desires, one could even pledge the house. The money borrowed would eventually be paid up, along with the compound interest, right? After all, one had a steady job that promised regular income.

What use was a lifetime of sweat if one didn’t get to enjoy oneself? One couldn’t really live it up after retirement, could one? That’s when one would eventually possess enough free funds to do what one was doing now, with the advent of leverage.

The do-now-pay-later philosophy soon took over the world.

Without being able to afford even a meaningful fraction of their expenditure, people began to go beserk.

What people didn’t know, and what they are now finding out the hard way, is that leverage is a double-edged sword. Since people didn’t know this, and since they didn’t bother to read the fine-print of the documents they were signing while leveraging their monthly salary or their home, well, financiers didn’t bother to educate them any further. No hard feelings, it was just business strategy, nothing personal.

Today, we know more. Much much more. Hopefully we have learnt. We are not going to make the same mistakes again.

So, when you buy into a company, look at the leverage on the balance-sheet. A debt : equity ratio of 1 : 1 is healthy. It promises balanced growth. If the ratio is lower, even better. We’ll talk about debt : equity ratios that are below 0.5 some other day.

Most companies do not have a healthy debt : equity ratio. Promoters like to borrow, and borrow big. You as an investor then need to judge. What exactly is the promotor using these funds for? Is he or she using these funds to finance a hi-fi lifestyle, with flashy cars, villas and company jets? Or is the promoter using these funds for the growth of the company, i.e. for the benefit of the shareholders? Use your common-sense. Look into a company’s management before buying into any company.

As regards your own self, reason it out, people. Save. As long as you can avoid taking that loan, do so. Loaned money comes with lots of hidden fees. If I’m not mistaken, now you’ll even need to pay service tax and education cess on a loan, but please correct me if I’m wrong. There’s definitely a loan-activation fee. Then there’s the huge interest, that compounds very fast. Ask someone who has borrowed on his or her credit card. There’s the collateral you’re promising against the loan. That’s your life you’re putting on the line. All for a bit of leveraged fun? How will your children remember you?

Also, when you invest with no leverage on your own balance-sheet, your mind is relaxed. There is no tension, and your investment decisions are solid. Furthermore, if you’re invested without having borrowed, there’s no question of having an investment terminated prematurely because of a loan-repayment date maturing coupled with one’s inability to pay.

How does the following sentence sound?

” Then came leverage, and common-sense disappeared.”

Not good, right?

“Don’t Turn Around – Der Kommissar’s in Town”

There’s activity within our slow-poke government.

Yup, we just got a new finance minister. PC’s back. Or, as the newspaper said, PC reboots.

He’s probably reinforcing backdated taxation.

He’s hinted at interest-rate cuts.

He’s after more service-tax candidates.

He’s transferred lots of portfolios.

He’s trying to dish out motivational quotes, so that the economy revives.

“Alles klar, Herr Kommissar?”

The last time PC was in town, there was volatlity in the markets. First they went up and up and up, and then they went down and down and down. Mr. Chidambaram is a by-word for volatility.

How does he do it?

Frankly, I don’t care.

If I’m getting volatility, I’m taking it.

Not that India as a market lacks any volatility without PC.

We Indians are emotionally volatile people. When we are happy, we are sooooooo happy. When we are down and out, man, we are totally gone. No surprise that our markets reflect our topsy-turvy and dramatic emotional nature. Yes, the trader in India is blessed with a volatile trading scenario by default.

So, PC or no PC, volatile trades make themselves available to us in the Indian markets regularly. What PC does is, he gives the system’s volatility a turbo-boost. Our market’s “beta” goes up wth PC, and it goes up fast, quite fast.

Man, how does he do it?

You know, I still don’t care, but if I did, I think this would be the correct answer.

Der Kommissar seems to do it in two steps. First he creates carrots, lots of carrots. These are dangled before India Inc. Things start hotting up. Foreign investment wakes up – demand – buying pressure – our markets go up. Then, when the balloon is inflated, der Kommissar will appear on television and will let out comments (implementation of stick, like the backdated taxation thing) which the market takes exception to. Or, he might give some interview in the media which India Inc. interprets negatively. Well, down we come crashing. Frankly, I still couldn’t care less. Upwards or down, there’s a trade to be found.

Just a few days in his seat, and pivot points are leading to bounce-backs, supports are holding, resistances cracking (it’s the carrots), and technicals are very, very initially changing from “range-bound” to “trending”.

Fine, let’s just trade the Kommissar while he’s in town.

I’ve quoted Falco above and I’m quoting him again : “Alles klar, Herr Kommissar!”