Can We Please Get This One Basic Thing Right?

Pop-quiz, people – how many of us know the basic difference between investing and trading?

The logical follow-up question would be – why is it so important that one is aware of this difference?

When you buy into deep value cheaply, you are investing. Your idea is to sell high, after everyone else discovers the value which you saw, and acted upon, before everyone.

When you’re not getting deep value, and you still buy – high – you are trading. Your idea is to sell even higher, to the next idiot standing, and to get out before becoming the last pig holding the red-hot scrip, which would by now have become so hot, that no one else would want to take it off you.

The above two paras need to be understood thoroughly.

Why?

So that you don’t get confused while managing a long-term portfolio. Many of us actually start trading with it. Mistake.

Also, so that you don’t start treating your trades as investments. Even bigger mistake.

You see, investing and trading both involve diametrically opposite strategies. What’s good for the goose is poison for the gander. And vice-versa.

For example, while trading, you do not average down. Period. Averaging down in a trade is like committing hara-kiri. What if the scrip goes down further? How big a notional loss will you sit upon, as a trader? Don’t ignore the mental tension being caused. The thumb rule is, that a scrip can refuse to turn in your direction longer than you can remain solvent, so if you’re leveraged, get the hell out even faster. If you’re not leveraged, still get the hell out and put the money pulled out into a new trade. Have some stamina left for the new trade. Don’t subject yourself to anguish by sitting on a huge notional loss. Just move to the next trade. Something or the other will move in your direction.

On the other hand, a seasoned investor has no problems averaging down. He or she has researched his or her scrip well, is seeing  deep-value as clearly as anything, is acting with long-term conviction, and is following a staggered buying strategy. If on the second, third or fourth buy the stock is available cheaper, the seasoned investor will feel that he or she is getting the stock at an even bigger discount, and will go for it.

Then, you invest with money you don’t need for the next two to three years. If you don’t have funds to spare for so long, you don’t invest …

… but nobody’s going to stop you from trading with funds you don’t need for the next two to three months. Of course you’re trading with a strict stop-loss with a clear-cut numerical value. Furthermore, you’ve also set your bail-out level. If your total loss exceeds a certain percentage, you’re absolutely gonna stop trading for the next two to three months, and are probably gonna get an extra part-time job to earn back the lost funds, so that your financial planning for the coming months doesn’t go awry. Yeah, while trading, you’ve got your worst-case strategies sorted out.

The investor doesn’t look at a stop-loss number. He or she is happy if he or she continues to see deep-value, or even value. When the investor fails to see value, it’s like a bail-out signal, and the investor exits. For example, Mr. Rakesh Jhunjhunwala continues to see growth-based value in Titan Industries at 42 times earnings, and Titan constitutes about 30% of his billion dollar portfolio. On the other hand, Mr. Warren Buffett could well decide to dump Goldman Sachs at 11 – 12 times earnings if he were to consider it over-valued.

Then there’s taxes.

In India, short-term capital gains tax amounts to 15%  of the profits. Losses can be carried forward for eight years, and within that time, they must be written off against profits. As a trader, if you buy stock and then sell it within one year, you must pay short term capital gains tax. Investors have it good here. Long-term capital gains tax is nil (!!). Also, all the dividends you receive are tax-free for you.

Of course we are not going to forget brokerage.

Traders are brokerage-generating dynamos. Investors hardly take a hit here.

What about the paper-work?

An active trader generates lots of paper-work, which means head-aches for the accountant. Of course the accountant must be hired and paid for, and is not going to suffer the headaches for free.

Investing involves much lesser action, and its paper-work can easily be managed on your own, without any head-aches.

Lastly, we come to frame of mind.

Sheer activity knocks the wind out of the average trader. He or she has problems enjoying other portions of life, because stamina is invariably low. Tomorrow is another trading day, and one needs to prepare for it. Mind is full of tension. Sleep is bad. These are some of the pitfalls that the trader has to iron out of his or her life. It is very possible to do so. One can trade and lead a happy family life. This status is not easy to achieve, though, and involves mental training and discipline.

The average investor who is heavily invested can barely sleep too, during a market down-turn. The mind constantly wanders towards the mayhem being inflicted upon the portfolio. An investor needs to learn to buy with margin of safety, which makes sitting possible. An investor needs to learn to sit. The investor should not be more heavily invested than his or her sleep-threshold. The investor’s portfolio should not be on the investor’s mind all day. It is ideal if the investor does not follow the market in real-time. One can be heavily invested and still lead a happy family life, even during a market down-turn, if one has bought with safety and has even saved buying power for such cheaper times. This status is not easy to achieve either. To have cash when cash is king – that’s the name of the game.

I’m not saying that investing is better than trading, or that trading is better than investing.

Discover what’s good for you.

Many do both. I certainly do both.

If you want to do both, make sure you have segregated portfolios.

Your software should be in a position to make you look at only your trading stocks, or only your investing stocks at one time, in one snapshot. You don’t even need separate holding accounts; your desktop software can sort out the segregation for you.

That’s all it takes to do both – proper segregation – on your computer and in your mind.

Happy Second Birthday, Magic Bull !!

Seasons change. So do people, moods, feelings, relationships and market scenarios.

A stream of words is a very powerful tool to understand and tackle such change.

Birthdays will go by, and, hopefully, words will keep flowing. When something flows naturally, stopping it leads to disease. Trapped words turn septic inside the container holding them.

Well, we covered lots of ground, didn’t we? This year saw us transform from being a money-management blog to becoming a commentary on applied finance. The gloom and doom of Eurozone didn’t beat us down. Helicopter Ben and the Fed were left alone to their idiosyncrasies. The focus turned to gold. Was it just a hedge, and nothing but a hedge? Could it replace the dollar as a universal currency? Recently, its glitter started to actually disturb us, and we spoke about exit strategies. We also became wary of the long party in the debt market, and how it was making us lazy enough to miss the next equity move. Equity, with its human capital behind it, still remained the number one long-term wealth preserver cum generator for us. After all, this asset class fought inflation on auto-pilot, through its human capital.

Concepts were big with us. There was the concept of Sprachgefühl, with which one could learn a new subject based on sheer feeling and instinct. The two central concepts that stood out this year were leverage and compounding. We saw the former’s ugly side. The latter was practically demonstrated using the curious case of Switzerland. There was the Ayurvedic concept of Satmya, which helps a trader get accustomed to loss. And yeah, we meet the line, our electrolytic connection to Mrs. Market. We bet our monsters, checked Ace-high, gauged when to go all-in against Mrs. Market, and when to move on to a higher table. Yeah, for us, poker concepts were sooo valid in the world of trading.

We didn’t like the Goldman attitude, and weren’t afraid to speak out. Nor did we mince any words about the paralytic political scenario in India, and about the things that made us go Uffff! We spoke to India Inc., making them aware, that the first step was theirs. We also recognized and reacted to A-grade tomfoolery in the cases of Air India and Kingfisher Airlines. Elsewhere, we tried to make the 99% see reason. Listening to the wisdom of the lull was fun, and also vital. What would it take for a nation to decouple? For a while, things became as Ponzi as it gets, causing us to build a very strong case against investing a single penny in the government sector, owing to its apathy, corruption and inefficiency. We were quite outspoken this year.

The Atkinsons were an uplifting family that we met. He was the ultimate market player. She was the ultimate home-maker. Her philanthropy stamped his legacy in caps. Our ubiquitous megalomaniac, Mr. Cool, kept sinking lower this year, whereas his broker, Mr. Ever-so-Clever, raked it in . Earlier, Mr. Cool’s friend and alter-ego, Mr. System Addict, had retired on his 7-figure winnings from the market. Talking of brokers, remember Miss Sax, the wheeling-dealing market criminal, who did Mr. Cool in? She’s still in prison for fraud. Our friend the frog that lived in a well taught us about the need for adaptability and perspective, but not before its head exploded upon seeing the magnitude of an ocean.

Our endeavors to understand Mrs. Market’s psychology and Mr. Risk’s point of view were constant and unfailing, during which we didn’t forget our common-sense at home. Also, we were very big on strategy. We learnt to be away from our desk, when Mrs. M was going nowhere. We then learnt to draw at Mrs. M, when she actually decided to go somewhere. Compulsion was taken out of our trading, and we dealt with distraction. Furthermore, we started to look out for game-changers. Scenarios were envisioned, regarding how we would avoid blowing up big, to live another day, for when cash would be king. Descriptions of our personal war in Cyberia outlined the safety standards we needed to meet. Because we believed in ourselves and understood that we were going to enhance our value to the planet, we continued our struggle on the road to greatness, despite any pain.

Yeah, writing was fun. Thanks for reading, and for interacting. Here’s wishing you lots of market success. May your investing and trading efforts be totally enjoyable and very, very lucrative! Looking forward to an exciting year ahead!

Cheers 🙂

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?

A Matter of Pride

Eurozone this, Eurozone that…

Man, it’s getting irritating.

Can we, for one moment, imagine a world without the Euro? Yes. Why is it so difficult? What would the cost of that scenario be?

Deleveraging, people, that will be required. All of those nations that leveraged themselves into quasi financial extinction will need to deleverage massively, once the Euro is discontinued, for as long as it takes to pay off their debts.

What does deleveraging mean? It means not using leverage for as long as it takes. It means paying off one’s debts by working overtime and saving.

Do you think the Italians or the Greeks et al. are liking such suggestions. Of course not. That’s the thing with debt. If you can’t pay it off, you’re in deep sh*t. Nobody thinks of that while taking on debt.

When the Eurozone was formed, sovereign debt of financially weaker countries was sold worldwide using the Eurozone tag. As in “C’mon, it’s all Eurozone now, and these Greek bonds give a premium return as compared to German ones!” Ingenious way to market junk bonds. Meanwhile, citizens of these financially weaker Eurozone countries borrowed left, right and centre to build houses and to consume. As 2008 approached, many lost the earning power to pay back their monthly installments. Now, as more and more of this debt matures, these financially weaker Eurozone countries need to conjure up billions of Euros they do not have.

You’ve got to hand it to the marketeers. Pure genius. They always get you, don’t they.

The reason things are not really working is the looming idea of uncalled for hard work that the process of deleveraging requires. Even if one wants to put in hard work, where does one put it in, if there’s no work.

Thus, the only option remaining involves massive cutbacks, like you’re seeing in Greece just now. Consumer spending down to zero. Pension cuts. Medicare cuts. All-round cuts. To one level above slowdown, till the deleveraging process is over. Scenario will take long to smoothen.

After enjoying a penthouse suite, a 1-BHK feels pathetic.

Eurozone wants to remain alive financially, but are they willing to pay the harsh price?

What you’ve been seeing since this crisis exploded is infinite artificial maneuvering. This might stall the situation. The goal is to stall long enough so that the deleveraging process is over before the stalling process can be weaned off. And that’s a fatal error. Nobody understands deleveraging properly, because the world has never done it properly before, at least in modern financial times. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Deleveraging is going to take longer than all the stalling moves put together. That is my opinion. Stalling results in a false sense of security because of all the maneuvering to show that the economy is doing well. Owing to this false sense of security, people continue to consume. Instead of deleveraging, people leverage. Instead of decreasing, debt increases.

What’s the deal here? You see, pride and egos are at stake. Eurozone doesn’t want to become the laughing stock of the world, the focus of all jokes. Thus, for the sake of their pride, and to fan their egos, European leaders feel the need to keep the Euro alive, even if it costs them their elections, and their financial survival.

Game-Changers

Change.

The one factor that keeps us evolving.

Adapt or get left behind. Seems to be the Mantra of the times.

The management of money has seen some big game-changers over the last few decades. We want to speak about them today.

In the ’90s, Bill Gates wrote about business at the speed of thought. We’re kinda there, you know. Let’s say you have an idea. From idea to framework, it’s mostly about a few button-clicks, with the web being full of idea-realizing resources. See, we’re already discussing the biggest game-changer, which is the flow of information. Today, we live in a sea of information. It’s yours to tap. Delivered to you on a platter. Such information flow changes everything, from lead-time to middle-men. Best part is, almost all of the information available is free!

Then there’s technology. Cutting-edge software, everywhere. Now, there’s even a software to smoothly organize your contract notes and calculate profit or loss, and taxes due. It’ll give you the appropriate print-out, whichever way you want it. You don’t need to hire an accountant to audit your market play. You just click the contract note and the software extracts all relevant information from it, organizing it beautifully. Actually, that’s nothing. Market-play software is what we should be speaking about. Cut to the movie “A Good Year”. Just picture Russell Crowe motivating his “lab-rats” to go for the kill and short an underlying, only to short-cover a few points below. The technical software follow-up of the underlying’s price on the wall-panels is the image embedded in my mind, as the price gets beaten down, and then starts to rise again.

Market software allows you to run scans too. A common exercise I do at the beginning of a trading day is to narrow down the 4,537 active stocks on the BSE and the NSE to about 10 tradable ones. I do this with 2 back to back scans. Each scan takes a minute. Then, I study the charts of the tradable stocks and select two or three to follow. That’s another 5 minutes. Putting on trigger buys or sells for these stocks takes 2 minutes. So, assuming that a trade gets triggered in the first minute, I have arrived from scratch to active trade in 10 bare minutes, with no prior market preparation. That’s what technology can do for you, and more. Software is expensive. It’s mostly a one-time cost with a life-time of benefit. Worth it. The management of money is a business, and each business needs initial investment.

Numbers have changed the game. Volumes have grown for many underlying entities that were illiquid earlier. When volumes are healthy, the bid-ask spread is very tradable. Thus, today, you can choose to trade in almost any avenue of your choice and you are almost certainly going to get a liquid trade.

Our attitudes and lifestyles have changed too. Today, we want more. No one is satisfied with mediocricity or being average. We have tasted the fruit that’s to be had, and are willing to get there at any cost, because we are hungry. Luxurious lifestyles lure us to rush into the game, which we play with everything we’ve got, because as I said, we’ve tasted the fruit, and we want more. Our approach has made the stakes go up. We need to adapt to the high stakes with proper risk-management.

It’s never been easier to access funds, even if you don’t have them. Leverage is the order of the day. Of course that changes the game, leading to higher volumes and increasing the frequency of trading. We need to keep debt-levels under control. It’s never been easier to go bust. Just takes a few button-clicks and a few missed stops. The leverage levels take care of the rest.

Game-changers will keep coming our way. As long as we keep adapting and evolving, our game will not only survive, but also blossom.

So, … What Made Peter Jump?

The buck generally stopped with Peter Roebuck in the world of Cricket journalism.

Professionally speaking, Peter was cutting edge.

Though he was described as a complex person outside of his professional sphere, the only blip that seemed to punctuate his 55 years was a 2001 common assault charge on some 19 year old cricketers he was coaching.

As per the media, Peter’s is a confirmed suicide; he jumped six floors to his death, from his hotel window. Just before he jumped, he was being questioned by the South African police on a sexual assault charge. A police officer was in the room when he jumped.

Was it extreme shame over something he’d done? Perhaps just one big blunder in an otherwise good, successful and recognized life? If that’s really the case, one needs to reflect on things.

Sometimes a good human being can make a huge blunder. Let’s cite excruciating circumstances that drive the person to such an act. For example, extreme loneliness can result in a moment of madness, in which one loses self-control and crosses the line between decent and indecent behaviour. Let’s please not behave as if this does not happen. Don’t know if this was the case with Peter. As of now I’m just looking at the general applicability and the consequences of such moments of madness in our normal arena of life. Also, I’m gonna try and apply this to market play.

Before I do that, let’s stay with Peter for a bit. If it turns out that Peter was pushed over the ledge, this whole discussion will need to be discarded and the investigation of match-fixing will come into play, since Peter had just finished reporting on arguably the most unusual Test match in the History of the game. As of now, murder is being ruled out, so let’s stay with our original discussion.

Who feels shame? A human being with a conscience does. Who feels so much shame, that he or she can’t face society, family, spouse, kids etc. anymore? A human being who has probably committed a grave folly and who has a conscience that is now powerfully confronting him or her.

The media has not reported any History of sexual assaults in Peter’s case, so we are probably looking at one grave act in a moment of madness that became the complete undoing of an acknowledged soul called Peter Roebuck.

How many of us are in the same boat, where one grave act can become our complete undoing? All of us are. Please be very clear about it. That’s how unpredictable life can be.

As of now, I’m going to focus on this one grave act unfolding during one’s career in the markets. All you have to do is to activate huge amounts of leverage (= few button-clicks), and then ignore a few stop-loss levels (= 0 button-clicks) while you answer the margin-calls, and you have already committed the grave act that is potentially life-threatening. If the resulting losses clean you out, that’s one thing, but if they put you deeply into debt, contemplation of suicide can well be on the cards if yours is even a slightly melancholy personality.

See, that’s a very short route to where someone like Peter Roebuck ends up, irrespective of one’s arena in life.

All I can say is (and I’m saying this to myself as well) that please let’s take that smug look off our faces, and let’s please reflect, because a moment of madness can trap and terminate the existence of any human being, no one excluded.

Moments of madness occur in everyone’s life. We need to train ourselves to not react to them. That’s easier said than done, but it’s better to say it out loud and activate one’s system to become aware of such moments of madness when they are happening.

Only if one is aware that such a moment is unfolding can one actively choose not to react.

Options 1.0.3

Has your stop ever been jumped over?

Yes?

Did it make you angry?

Yes?

It might make you angrier to know that Mrs. Market couldn’t care less about you on a personal level. It’s you who has to adapt, not Mrs. Market.

So, next time you see Mrs. Market moving many points in one shot, you have a choice. Either you can choose to take the chance of having your stop jumped over in the hope of huge rewards, or you can use options as an instrument to trade.

In general, a stop getting jumped over is a non-issue with options, because you are pre-defining your maximum loss here. Your option-premium is the maximum loss you will incur on the trade. Once you’ve mentally aligned yourself with this potential maximum loss, you are actually then asking Mrs. Market to do all the jumping she wishes to do. It just doesn’t bother you anymore. You travel, do other stuff, and then take a sneak-peak at your position.

Once your position starts making money, you might decide to fine-tune your trade-management after achieving your target. If you then make sure that your trailing stop is wide-gapped, you can still relax and do other stuff. Maybe one time out of twenty, Mrs. Market will jump even your wide-gapped trailing stop. Even if she does, you are well in the money, and you do not forget to install a new stop. Also, a little while ago, you were mentally prepared to forgo your whole option-premium, so giving back a part of your profits seems a piece of cake to you.

Welcome to the world of options. We have plunged right in. I believe that the best way to learn something is to plunge right in. Gone are the days of bookish learning.

The options market in India is just about coming into its own. At any given time, there will be at least 20 scrips on the National Stock Exchange showing very high options volume for long trades, and at least 10 scrips showing heavy volume for short trades. Bottomline: you can get into a liquid trade on either side, anytime you want. The number of scrips showing this kind of liquidity is picking up. We are still very, very far away from the mature options market in the US. What can be said is that the Indian options market will offer you liquid trades, anytime, both on the long and the short side. Frankly, that’s all one needs.

On the flip side, options on commodities have yet to come to India. Also, only the current month options are adequately liquid in India. Regarding options, the Indian market is getting there. Well, as long as you get a liquid trade anytime you want, who cares if we’re not as mature as the US options market? I don’t.

Over the last few months, options have been the instruments of choice, with unfathomable volatility abounding. I was dying to have a go, but have been caught up in so much other distracting stuff, that I’ve not traded for two months now. I like sticking to my trading rules. One of them is to not trade if I’m distracted. I really stick to this one.

Those who did trade the options market over this period would have done exceptionally well, because ideal conditions persisted. Big and quick moves, like a see-saw. The scenario would look like this: Long options give quick profits, short options simultaneously becoming very cheap, especially the out of the money ones. One sells the now expensive long options (which were picked up cheap), and stocks up on the now cheap out of the money short options. The market turns around and leaps to the downside, giving quick and large profits on the short options. One sells the short options and picks up now cheap out of the money long options, again. The repeat trades according to this pattern can continue till they stop working. When they stop working, what have you lost? Just your premium on some out of the money options.

Wish I’d had the frame of mind to trade options over the last two months. But then, one can’t have everything!

Jumping Jackstops

Recently, Mr. Cool and Mr. System Addict decide to get into a trade.

Yeah, surprise surprise, Mr. Cool is liquid again!

They’ve decided to trade Gold, and are pretty much in the money already. Their trades have come good first up. Both are leveraged 25:1, which is common with Gold derivatives. Mr. Addict has bet 5% of his networth on the trade, and Mr. Cool, true to his name, has matched Mr. Addict’s amount.

Gold prices jump, and Mr. Addict’s target is hit. He exits without thinking twice, and is pretty pleased upon doubling his trade amount within a week. He pickles 90% of the booty in fixed income schemes, and is planning a holiday for his girl-friend with the remaining amount. Instead of trading further, he decides to recuperate for a while.

Meanwhile, Mr. Cool rubs his hands in glee as the price of Gold shoots up further. His notional-profits now far exceed the actually booked profits of Mr. Addict. When’s he planning to exit? Not soon. He wants to make a killing, and once and for all prove to Mr. Addict and to the world, that he rules. He wants to bury Mr. Addict’s trade results below the mountain of his own king-sized profits. Gold soars further.

Mr Cool has trebled his money, and is still not booking any profits. He picks up his cell to call Mr. Addict. Wants to rub it in, you know.

Mr. Addict puts down his daiquiri by the poolside in his hotel in Ibiza. His girl-friend has at last started admiring him. They’ve been swimming all morning. “All right, all right, he’ll take this one call. Oh, it’s Mr. Cool, wonder what he’s up to?” Mr. Addict is one of the few people in the world who are able to switch off. He’s totally forgotten about Gold and his winning trade, and is really enjoying his holiday.

Mr. Cool tries to rub it in, but receives some unperturbed advice from the other end of the line. He’s being asked to be satisfied and to book profits right now. Of course he’s not going to do that. All right, fine, if he wants to play it by “let’s see how high this can go”, he needs to have a wide-gapped trailing stop in place, says Mr. Addict. Of course he’s got a wide-gapped trailing stop in place, says Mr. Cool. Mr. Addict wishes him luck, cuts the call, and forgets about the existence of Mr. Cool, dozing off into a well-deserved snooze.

As Gold moves higher, Cool starts to think about that wide-gapped trailing stop. Let alone having one in place, he doesn’t even know what it means. A quick call to the broker follows. The broker is ordered to install a trailing stop into Mr. Cool’s trade. Since Cool doesn’t know what “wide-gapped” means, he forgets to mention it. The broker doesn’t like Cool’s attitude and his proud tone. He installs a narrow-gapped trailing stop.

Circumstances change, and Gold starts to drop. It’s making big moves on the downside, falling a few percentage points in one shot. Cool’s narrow-gapped trailing stop gets fully jumped over; it doesn’t get a chance to become activated in the first place, because it is narrow-gapped and not wide-gapped. The price of the underlying just leaps over the narrow gap between trigger price and limit price. Happens. Cool does not install a new stop. Stupid.

Next morning, Cool’s jaw drops when he sees Gold down 15% overnight. On a 25:1 leverage, he’s just about to lose his margin. The phone rings. It’s the margin call. Cool panics. He answers the margin call. His next call is to Mr. Addict, asking what he should do. Mr. Addict is shocked to learn that Cool has answered the margin call. He asks him to cut the trade immediately.

Cool’s gone numb. Gold drops another 4%. Phone rings. Second margin call. Cool doesn’t have the money to answer it. In fact , he didn’t have the money to answer the first one. In the broker’s next statement, that amount will show up as a debit, growing at the rate of 18% per annum.

Mr. Cool’s not liquid anymore. Actually, he’s broke. No, worse that that. He’s in debt. Greed got him.

Blowing up Big

Derivatives are to be traded with stops. Period.

Stops allow you to get out when the loss is small.

Common sense?

Apparently not.

Who has common sense these days?

Also, the human being has embraced leverage as if it were like taking the daily shower. Bankers and high-profile brokers have free flowing and uncontrolled access to humongous amounts of leverage.

Apart from that, the human being is greedy. There’s nothing as tempting as making quick and big bucks.

Combine humongous amounts of leverage with large amounts of greed and brew this mix together with lack of common sense. That’s the recipe for blowing up big.

Every now and then, a banker or a high-profile broker blows up big, and in the process, at times, brings down the brokerage or the bank in question. In the current case at hand, UBS won’t be going bust, but its credibility has taken a sizable hit.

Bankers are to finance what doctors are to medicine. Where doctors manage physical and perhaps mental health, bankers are supposed to manage financial health. Bankers are taught how to manage risk. Something’s going wrong. Either the teaching is faulty, or the world’s banking systems are faulty. I think both are faulty. There exists a huge lack of awareness about the definition of risk, let alone its management.

Trained professionals lose respect when one of them blows up big. Such an event brings dark disrepute to the whole industry. Most or all of the good work to restore faith in the banking industry thus gets nullified to zilch.

A doctor or an engineer is expected to adhere to basics. I mean, the basics must be guaranteed before one allows a surgeon to perform surgery upon oneself. A surgeon must wash hands, and not leave surgical instruments in the body before stitching up. Similarly, an construction engineer must guarantee the water-tightness or perfection of a foundation before proceeding further with the project.

Similarly, a banker who trades is expected to apply stops. He or she is expected to manage risk by the implementation of position-sizing and by controlling levels of leverage and greed. Responsibility towards society must reflect in his or her actions. A banker needs to realize that he or she is a role model.

All this doesn’t seem to be happening, because every few years, someone from the financial industry blows up big, causing havoc and collateral damage.

Where does that leave you?

I believe that should make your position very clear. You need to manage your assets ON YOUR OWN. Getting a banker into the picture to manage them for you exposes your assets to additional and unnecessary stress cum risk.

In today’s day and age, the face of the financial industry has changed. If you want to manage your own assets, nothing can stop you. There exist wide-spread systems to manage your assets, right from your laptop. All you need to do is plunge in and put in about one hour a day to study this area. Then, with time, you can create your own management network, fully on your laptop.

Your assets are yours. You are extra careful with them. You minimize their risk. That’s an automatic given. Not the case when a third party manages them for you. Commissions and kick-backs blind the third party. Your interests become secondary. Second- or third-rate investments are proposed and implemented, because of your lack of interest, or lack of time, or both.

Do you really want all that? No, right?

So come one, take the plunge. Manage your stuff on your own. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, and it will definitely teach you a lot, simultaneously building up confidence inside of you. Go ahead, you can do it.

The Power of Leverage

Apart from the D-word, the Street’s got the L-word too.

This L stands for L-E-V-E-R-A-G-E.

So, how much leverage do you enjoy from your spouse?

Or, do you have any leverage on politician so-and-so?

Or, bank so-and-so or brokerage so-and-so is offering a 10:1 or a 16:1 leverage on derivatives.

Just racking up the various uses of the L-word.

In colloquial terms, the amount of leeway your spouse allows you in your marriage is called leverage. Also, the amount of dirt you have on a politician to coerce him into following your wishes – that’s called leverage too. But for now, let’s get back to the Street.

On the Street, The L-word gives the D-word its power to destroy big.

Do you remember what the D-word was? D-E-R-I-V-A-T-I-V-E-S.

A derivative is a stink normal trade without the power of leverage. When brokerages start offering you leverage like 16:1, the stink normal derivative becomes lethal. Then, small amounts of volatility can wipe out the principal put up by you. If a down-turn continues, your loss can become many times your principal. People can go bankrupt like this.

You see, for every market move, your profit or loss is the move times the leverage. On a 5% move, a 16:1 leverage can result in 80% profit or loss. Leverage works on the upside as well as the downside.

The problem arises when the player doesn’t know how to play either side. Most players don’t know.

Leverage can be used to one’s advantage only when the down-side is protected with a stop. Most people don’t use a stop while deploying leverage. That’s why they lose, and lose big.

This singular characteristic of the average market player of not knowing how to use stops results in a spiralling bomb during market down-turns. As losses pile up, selling pressure increases due to dejection or the like as the market heads even lower. What if they’d taken a 2% or a 5% or even an 8% hit when a stop was hit? They’d be out and the market could stabilize near the stop level because of lack of further selling pressure.

Leverage is something that must not be used if one doesn’t fully understand how to use it. Unfortunately, almost everyone consumes leverage as if it were a bar of Snickers. Leverage is served to customers on a platter. Even a loan, or debt on the credit card is leverage.

Leverage is the driving force of consumerism and the modern industrialized world.

Understanding Loss and Reacting to it in a Winning Manner

In the world of trading, we deal with loss everyday.

We have no option but to deal with it.

If we want our performance to improve, we need to deal with it in a winning manner.

What is loss? I mean, apart from its monetary ramifications…

A loss has the propensity to suck the living daylights out of you.

That’s if you allow it to.

You see, in the world of trading, losses have the propensity to grow.

You need to cut them when they are still bearable. Period.

If you don’t, they can become unbearable.

You then still have the option of cutting the unbearable loss as opposed to letting the loss eat into your gut and cause insolvency. Choice is yours. I’ve seen it happening with my own eyes.

You see, losses not only suck out money, they also suck out emotional energy from your system. Your mind loses focus, and instead of concentrating on your A-game, your mind focuses on the loss. The result is that your A-game becomes a B- or a C-game. Unacceptable.

Health deteriorates and one is snappy around the family. Totally unacceptable. Just cut the loss, stupid.

In FY ’08 – ’09, my senior partners walked into my office. I was being consulted, hurrah, a winning moment by itself for me.

Our company was entered into a derivative USD hedge at the time. The trade had turned sour, and was showing a loss of half a million USD. I was being asked what to do.

In a situation like this, a trader does not dilly-dally. I advised my senior parners strongly to cut the loss as it stood, no ifs, and no buts. That’s what we did.

Two other companies in our town were involved in a similar hedge. They chose not to cut their losses at this stage, but to hope, pray and wait for a recovery.

Well, recovery did happen ultimately. This was that swing when the USD first went up to INR 38 and then down all the way to INR 52.50. Before recovery occured, let’s see what else happened.

One company declared insolvency, because it could not repay the 22 milllion USD loss in the hedge, because that’s the amount the loss had ballooned to at a later stage, before recovery even started. The other company, I believe, settled its losses at 25 million USD, and enjoys a cash-strapped existence today.

So that’s what. My training as a small-time trader came in handy, and I was able to help our family run export business in a major way.

This was also a big test for me. It showed me that I had understood loss as a trader, and was able to react to it in a winning manner.

And that’s the prequisite required to understanding winning and reacting to it like a champion. More on that when I’ve mastered this myself!

Street’s got the D-word

There seems to be an X-word in every avenue of life.

The Street has its own – the D-word.

It spells D-e-r-i-v-a-t-i-v-e-s.

Whatever reasons there are for a crisis to develop become secondary at the peak of the crisis, because derivatives take over. The crisis is driven to the nth level because of massive institutional leveraging in derivatives in the direction the crisis is unfolding. Recipe for disaster.

The human instinct is to maximize profit, irrespective of any consequences. When masses start shorting the stock of a company that’s already in trouble, its stock price can well go down to zero (and lead to bankruptcy), even if the company’s mistakes are not deserving of such a price / destiny.

Similarly, when masses start going long the futures of a company’s stock, the resulting stock price overshoots fair-value in a major way. Then come along some fools and buy the scrip at an extreme over-valuation. They are the ones that get hammered.

That’s the way this game has unfolded, time and again.

Does it need to be this way for you?

No.

Firstly, as a long-term investor, don’t buy into over-valuation. Make this a thumb rule. Control your animal instinct that wants a piece of the action. Leave the action to the traders. You need to buy into under-valuation. Period.

Unfortunately, most long-term investors (myself included) miss action. Then they fool around with their long-term holdings to get some, and in the process mess up their big game.

The animal instinct in the long-term investor can be channelized and thus harnessed. One way to get action is to play the D-game. Of course with rules. The benefit can be huge. Action focuses elsewhere and doesn’t mess up your big game.

So, play the D-game if you wish, but play it small.

Secondly, be aware that you’re only doing this to take care of the action-instinct. Any profits are a bonus.

Thirdly, keep the D-game cordoned off from long-term investment strategies. No mixing, even on a sub-conscious level.

Then, take stop-losses. DO NOT ignore them.

Also, when anything is disturbing you, DO NOT play the D-game. It DOES NOT matter if you are out of the D-game for months. Remember, this is your small game. What matters is your big game.

Categorically DO NOT listen to tips.

If you are down a pre-defined level within a month, press STOP for the rest of the month.

Make your own rules for yourself. To give you some kind of a guide-line, I’ve listed some of mine above.

A D-game played with proper rules can even yield bombastic profits. 95% lose the D-game. 5% win. Derivatives are a zero-sum play-out. 5% of all players cash in on the losings of the other 95%.

So, play in a manner that you belong to the winning 5%.

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.

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.

Anatomy of a Ponzi Scheme

Charles Ponzi came up with the brilliant idea of paying early investors dividends from the investment money put in by later investors.

It’s as simple as that, and it’s called a Ponzi scheme.

After the first few dividends, promoter disappears, having lured many investors into a fake scheme with no underlying business.

Latest famous example of a Ponzi schemer – Bernie Maddoff.

Or, if you’ve not seen Damages – Season III, that’s about a Ponzi scheme too.

So what lures the common investor into a Ponzi scheme?

Simple. It’s called greed.

What triggers the greed?

The Ponzi schemer concocts a scheme that promises a rather too lucrative return. This return does not look unrealistic, so the average investor’s alarm signals don’t go off. Nevertheless, it’s more than high enough to make the average investor’s mouth water.

And what’s normally promised is a quick return, mind you. The average investor buys smoothly into the idea of doubling his or her money fast.

Then there’s lots of advertisment. Billboards everywhere. The Ponzi schemer wants to hit the public with ads about the tremendous returns.

The sales-people who sell the scheme are glib-talkers. They are smart, wear expensive stuff, basically exuding sophistication. They want to rub it in that they’ve made it big in life.

A Ponzi scheme’s documentation generally cracks under close scrutiny. I mean, when something is being sold to you without any underlying business, all you have to do is your dose of due diligence. Just pick up the phone and start asking questions.

What works for the Ponzi schemer is human nature. The first investors (who get paid dividends from newbie investor money) start talking. Actually, they start bragging. The human being likes to show off. And, the human being hates missing the boat, even if the boatman is a disciple of Charles Ponzi.

The Dark Side of Private Equity

Greed is the investor’s nemesis.

I’ve been guilty of greed at times.

Luck has been on my side, and I’ve been saved from losing money. I’d like to tell you about it.

In my experiences with private equity over the last four years, the one thing that stood out was the pitch of each scheme proposed. The average pitch just sucked one in by describing a world that would appear utopic to somebody in a balanced frame of mind. When greed sets in, balance and common sense go out the window. One gets taken in by the pitch, and without doing any due diligence, one is willing to bet the farm.

The private equity teams of today have a tool up their sleeve that creates pressure on the investor, and leaves little time for due diligence. It’s called the time-window. Most schemes are proposed to the investor with a very short time-window. Either the investor is in within the window, or he or she can sit out. Lesson learnt: if one’s due diligence is taking longer than the time-window, then the scheme can go out the window rather than putting one’s hard-earned money on the line.

One of the worst starts a newbie investor can make is a good one. This happened to me as a newbie private equity investor. I got involved with the Milestone group in the middle of the financial crisis, and I invested in their REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts). These people were honest, and the investments have yielded steady quarterly dividends since, apart from the property appreciation. I started thinking private equity was the holy grail, and that all forthcoming institutions and schemes would be like Milestone.

Big mistake. When Edelweiss knocked on my door with an 8 year lock-in real-estate scheme, I was lapping it up. One thing kept going around in my mind – the 8 year cycle they were trying to make me believe in. Wasn’t convincing, but I wanted the profits they were promising. Before signing on, it occured to me to do at least some due diligence. I insisted on a conference call with the management. During the concall, I became aware of one wrongful disclosure. The pitch had spoken of a large sum of money from overseas, already invested in the scheme. In the concall, it became apparent that these funds were tentative and had not arrived yet.

A wrongful disclosure is a big alarm bell for me. I have programmed myself in such a way that when I come across wrongful disclosure during due diligence, I axe the investment. Luckily, the mind was not totally taken in, and I stuck to this rule.

Then came Unitech. Second generation real-estate magnate. Big money. Big leverage. In a joint venture with CIG, Unitech was redeveloping the slums of Mumbai, we were told in the pitch. Each slum-dweller would be relocated with ample compensation, we were told. The scheme had a multi-page disclaimer protecting the promoters against anything and everything. Alone that should have been an alarm bell. Of course I wasn’t thinking straight when I signed the documents.

In the next few months this scheme got a few investors interested, but its corpus wasn’t enough for the first leg of investments planned. Then, Adarsh exploded. I’m talking about the Adarsh real-estate scam. CIG / Unitech could not find a single new investor for their scheme. Everyone was scared of real-estate. Then there was another explosion: the 2G scam. Sanjay Chandra, CEO of Unitech, was one of the prime accused. What would happen to my money? Was it gone?

I got together with my bankers, and for more than a month, we steam-rolled the CIG / Unitech office in Delhi with emails and phone-calls, asking for the money to be returned with interest, since the scheme had not gotten off the ground. Luck was on our side, and after a thorough documentation process from their end, I received my entire amount with interest, one day before Sanjay Chandra was sent to jail.

Moral of the story: double your due diligence when you feel greed setting in. Don’t get taken in by fancy pitches. Don’t get pressurized into time-windows. Tackle the dark-side of private equity with a clear mind and full focus.