Structured Equity Products

First things first – daughter gets through the national round of the spelling bee that was held in Kolkata. International round is next.

Yesterday, someone asked me to analyse a structured equity product which the wealth management group of a well known private bank had pushed for his consideration and possible investment. This was a “structured” equity linked debenture with a pay-out in the form of a knock out barrier option. If I have not lost you yet and if you aren’t KO’d, you may want to take a peep at the term sheet here. In a nutshell, what this instrument is saying is that it’ll pay you regardless of the NIFTY tanking down. If on any of the predefined monthly observation dates, the NIFTY breaches a preset barrier, then a knock out event would have happened and investors will get a fixed return of 27.5% for 24 months.  This is equivalent to investing in a fixed income instrument (bond) that gives an annual return of 11.4%. Note that with QE2, and a new wave of cheap US money expected to flood our markets the chances of the barrier getting knocked out in the short term remains extremely high. so then all that this means is that you are holding a pure fixed income instrument. The hastily scribbled payoff diagram above tries to show what I think this gives us.

“Structured” equity notes seems to be an INR 15,000 crore industry having been introduced only 4 years back in the Indian market. These class of products are quite popular in Asia and with increasing volatility expected due to increasing wads of hot money coming down to Asia, the popularity of such instruments should grow. That is really a problem since it does not seem cool to buy these things. Why? Because these are just plain and simple fixed income instruments at heart masquerading as sexy and exotic equity junkets. The annual yield of 11.4% really does not look quite cool when one considers A) the prospect of interest rates rising locally as the RBI grapples to control inflation and B) the management fee of 2 – 2.5% that such structures entail. Just 9% after taking out the fees. Also, this is not risk free for it entails taking on the credit risk of the issuer. There is no liquidity as well so the managers of such structures do not have much of a duration risk to manage – so what for this 2 – 2.5% fee? That fee, really is to justify the enormous amount of finacial acumen and spreadsheet crunching calculations that goes under anything that swishes using guiles like “structured”, “Knock Out”, “Barrier”, “Participation” etc. Investors who put their money behind such ventures must be feeling really hep and smart about themselves. Imagine having protected your capital (ok, not all of it, 97.5% perhaps 🙂 ) and also participating in the run up of NIFTY. Wouldn’t such males love to brag about it to whoever cares to listen – if some female ears patronise their trumpeting, then all the better! I don’t think I’m stretching the issue – do a random survey, I can bet my widgets that the proportion of investing females that pick up this product would be far lesser than the proportion of investing males that do the same.

SEBI made capital protection on such instruments mandatory some time back, so that lends some saving grace for such macho investors. Thankfully, most ticket sizes (i.e. face value of such debentures/notes) are 1 lakh plus so that means that macho men of modest means will not be able to participate here. Which is good, but then there was this CIO of an asset management house making a case for peddling this for an investment level as low as INR 5000! Wow! That makes it a mass market structured kill! That was from an article that was published in early 2008. In fact the more noise about such products more are the chances that we might be nearing really overbought market levels.  The point behind introducing a sexist angle to this barrier is simply to make a strong point in favour of restricting investing to products and asset classes that one understands. I know most of you would agree that there is nothing hep or cool about buying such notes, but I also do know that if some of you did buy it under whatever compomising situations then a part of you would trumpet. Avoid that. The process of amassing wealth through investing is utterly boring and almost emasculated, if I daresay.

The latent desire that such products seek to serve still needs addressing though. You have a section of the HNI/well heeled type of investors who get edgy whenever the benchmarks seem like peaking up and there is an increase in volatility. The psychological weightage that such investors apply to the act of capital preservation becomes higher. Which is again correct. But I kind of disagree in getting blindsided by the hype around these products and only using such notes to achieve that end. 9% return. Investors would be better off buying a high rated bond (of similar maturity)directly. Picking up a balanced mutual fund might require active monitoring of the fund managers’ actions (since a rising market might invoke some managers’ to increase their allocation to equity in a balanced fund making the risk – reward ratio lean towards the risk side). If you must do something whacky, then take a look at the crude payoff diagram of this structure that I have shown above. What base building blocks can be combined to create something similar to this?

An option strategy called the bull call spread, where one buys an at the money call and simltaneously sells an out of money call at a strike that is around the participation rate of the above structure should achieve a similar payoff. The quantity of options should be scaled up depending on the participation rate of the structure. The net premium paid will be one part of your investment. The balance can be put to work by buying a simple fixed income instrument. And you are home – your manliness intact (if that matters to you!). The hitch here could be finding long dated options – most of you would be using common online trading screens of retail brokerages and the max that you’ll get is a quarter’s look forward. This is something I have not explored myself but what I suggest is that next time your banks’ investment planner or relationship manager calls you, instead of finding an excuse and disconnecting ask that person to give you quotes (i.e. premiums) if you were to purchase/sell long dated options of NIFTY. The premiums would be high, no doubt – but I don’t even know how high. So, it’s a line that at least I am waiting to pick up. Will the bank really negotiate hard for me and try to find me a good deal? Will my notional be high enough for anyone to be really interested in? Does my bank have a prop trading arm where they are be a counterparty to my macho designs? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions – but yes, I am interested in long dated index options, if cost effective.

When to Sell – Part Two

In my post titled Portrait of a Portfolio, I had talked about my conscious shift towards a higher frequency of trading since the start of this calendar year. A lot many informed voices were then pointing out to increasing choppiness and therefore the need to be nimble and hit the right spots in terms of stock selection. The standard ham was “India is a growth and domestic consumpition driven story – long term trajectory remains upwards – but there is a lot of pain in the international markets – higher volatility is expected – cannot predict what the market will do by end of 2010 but stock specific action will abound”. Since I personally agreed to this prognosis and also since a relatively high frequency style of trading/investing suits my personality, I applied this mantra not just to that Portfolio I talked about on 7Oct’10, but to the entire block of personal capital that I ‘play’ with.

A natural consequence of the rapid churing out of my positions is a sharp reduction in the average holding period of my trade positions. These days I have been holding my positions for an average of 45 – 60 days only! This is in stark contrast to the 500+ days positions I normally used to have prior to the crash of the previous year. So, as part of the ongoing effort to gather insights on the best method of selling out, I tried to look at the relation between the returns that I have earned and the time I have spent in nurturing my trades. I took all the 306 odd closed trades that I have on me since May’03 and tried to stack up the (weighted) average returns across the corresponding holding period in calendar days. The chart shown on the right is what came about. The picture in inset shows the same chart with the full range of the y-axis (representing % returns) – I could not resist blowing my trumpet on the 18 bagger investment of mine which I held on for a good 978 calendar days. It was not a black swan – though it is an outlier on the chart – there was logic and conviction backing that trade all the way. I really don’t know if it’s just poor me or even other market players are currently feeling that the age of finding such skyscrapers has passed us by. Anyways, the main body of the chart is squeezed into a narrower vertical range to bring out more detail on the other trades.

Some interesting observations and takeaways come about. I guess, some of these might be applicable to you as well since like it or not us amateurs seem to be cut from the same cloth:

  1. There is clearly no optimum holding period, but in the past 7 years or so the longer term holds win. They have the potential to compound much faster than the market. I spent a few minutes trying to isolate the high yielding tenures and checking if some logical pattern applies to the number of these days. Fibonacci Series? Nope. Prime (numbers) days? No. Numerologically significant days? Absolutely not! What is abundantly clear (at least to me) is that longer the hold, better off you will be provided you keep monitoring and assessing the position every now and then. Personally for me that is a challenge. See, when I started investing, a 3 year time horizon represented 11% of my lifetime! For someone like a WB, a 3 year hold represents 3.75% of his lifetime. The concept of time, patience and maturity is different. However, I cannot wait to grow old to hold for longer time periods and therefore compoung well and high. Who’ll have the inclination to purchase a Ferrowatch at age of 80! And as Adam Smith said, “In the long run we are dead”. Therefore, for me another takeaway from this data representation, though oblique, is that invest when young but think like an octogenarian. A smattering of maturity ahead of one’s chronological age might be the most important thing – apart from luck.
  2. Then there is the importance of stop losses. As I mentioned in some of the previous posts, for an average investor like me, with a full day/late evening job it is impossible to pour over balance sheets, interview managements (ha ha), overlay companies’ prospects in the context of larger economy and all that ‘bull’. I am also not the kind of guy who will read a research report from a brokerage house to invest. Not for me the kind of consensus building investing that some kind of people prefer – call up a hundred contacts from your phone’s address book and bounce an investing idea off them – and if most agree, then invest. My phone’s address book is quite impoverished anyways. So I guess what works for me is a ruthless culling off of losing positions – regardless of the long term, hidden value spiel. As long as the general trend of the local economy is expansive I am cool. This inbuilt bias in equity markets to rise tells me that while such an edgy response to volatility/corrections may not result in the most optimal of returns I think I will make enough to take care of the added burden that transaction costs and taxes place on such behaviour. That’s what I am thinking right now – but remain open to change my view as I “mature”.
  3. One last point regaring the sea of red at longer holding periods. This is my personal example of loss avoidance – of ego triumphing over prudence. Of imprudent youth putting false hopes of a turnaround. An example is the “Stupid Mining Company” trade of mine – when price falls, you just don’t care if it falls another 20% – 30% more, right? How does it matter? A loss is a loss. It was at a particular level once, it will surely climb back and beyond, right? Well, try plotting your own personal chart like the one above – then ask yourself these questions again. The fear of booking a loss is something I think I have hopefully gotten over now. And one should know when to call it a day. While my personal data may not be representative, the reds are concerntrated towards the right of the chart. That’s poor management of capital indeed! I guess what I am implying is that a dud can be spotted in a year or two – it does not require more than that (even if you are the oldest, most “mature” value junkie) to pull out one’s precious capital and put it to work elsewhere.

 

When to Sell – Part One

I’ve been spending some time digging around in my trade journal and trying to understand this. Getting a handle of this very important aspect of investing is one of my birthday resolutions. This study and therefore these series of posts are a set of steps in that direction. I’ve entered into 337 sell transactions till date. The first time I ever booked a profit on a secondary market trade was way back in 05Oct’01 and the latest one was as near as 06Sep’10. To understand more about the when of my selling behaviour I looked at these 337 in conjunction with the market and it’s valuation. I also tried to plot my sales in along time to see if there were clusters of sales happening during particular time periods. I will bother (and write) about the other questions of why, how and what regarding my selling behaviour at a later stage.

For now, I constructed this chart which shows my selling activity during the period spanning Oct’01 to Sep’10. The small green histograms at the bottom show the distribution of my sell trades. Three clusters seem to emerge: Aug’04 to May’05; Jan’07 to Apr’07 and Aug’09 till date. I have started my investing career with a handicap – which might seem like a paradox given the upward ascent of the NIFTY since 2001. What I mean is that my investing thought process has been spawned during a whopper of a bull run. Nearly anything anyone touched during 2001-03 turned to gold. Midases were everywhere, hemlines were getting higher by the minute. Then after that 2008 and the early part of 2009 was such a humbling moment. And a great learning experience. I lost money on a few trades and the flurry of sales that you see during more recent times are my unwinding of those doomed trades as they recouped some of their lost ground. The wicked blue line represents the market – NIFTY in this case. The oscillating orange band represents the value of the market – trailing 12 month NIFTY P/E ratios. If one uses this lens to view the art of getting off the train, then it’s good to be a net seller when the NIFTY’s P/E is above 25. It pays to be a net buyer if the NIFTY P/E is below the first quartile (under or at 15). Currently the NIFTY P/E is around 24 so we are entering hilly terrain – best to tighten up our seat belts. I use the terms “net seller” and “net buyer” since even at exalted heights of market valuation one can find a few lonely bulls rampaging around and likewise the depths of market penury still throw up some bears lying in wait to maul you.

The idea is that statistics and data tell a story about your trading pattern. It is useful to step out of the frame once in a while and see things from a wider time perspective. I guess successful traders need to necessarily have oodles of experience behind them. The best minds in the business have lived through at least a couple of downturns and figured out their behavioural patterns and emotional compass. Also, when you see the picture in cinemascope, a few down months don’t seem all that frightening.

The wise ‘old’ men of investing mysteriously say – buy when you see value and sell when your asset gets expensive. but how the heck does one go about ‘seeing value’? We seem to know/have heard about things like fundamental analysis, discounted cash flows, industry compares, etc. Most of us however, do not have the time to do detailed down-to-the bone analysis of company financials. Some of us don’t even know how to go about doing it. I don’t think that such people should not participate in the markets or run scared of balance sheets and mathematics. I guess what is required for this set (I may fall in this realm) is to develop and consistently use common sensical heuristics with modest return expectations. One such rule is getting in and out depending on the movement of NIFTY P/E as compared to the two control limits as depicted in the chart. You may have a better method – gazing at tea leaves perhaps – whatever it is, I think the key is to stick to it. Economies and therfore the stock markets have a slight inbuilt bias towards expansion and growth. Therefore, the dice is loaded – but only if you stick to the same dice.

I don’t drink tea, BTW.

Are we done yet?

We are now at a 31 month high for the NIFTY (@ 5590 therabouts)!

And my mood is getting to be optimistically cautious. It surfaces immediately in my latest tweet which in turn was inspired by the recent tweet from Clifford Alvares, an Outlook Money correspondent.

Clifford Alvares Tell-tale signs of the next downturn: Slow-down in daily FII figures; market PE of 24+; unjustified run in small-caps — and free lunches. 5:50 PM Sep 6th via web Retweeted by you

Most of the people tracking and working the markets will be cautiously optimistic now, but I’m a worm. And worms have no spine. It’s getting to be a cacophony of dire predictions and upbeat prophecies. The more one reads and listens and watches, the more confusing it gets. But if you dont read or listen or watch, you might as well invest using your keen sense of smell or touch, maybe. Thats puts a weird thought in the wormy head. I am thinking of taking a leaf out of Curtis Faith‘s “Way of the Turtle“, where two stock market professionals recruited a couple of dozen bright men and women with no prior experience of trading and transformed them into star traders in two weeks flat (or maybe more). The basic premise being that trading is a skill that can be learnt just like any other academic/vocational course and that traders are made not born. So, what I’m going to do is recruit a dozen sharp blind men and women. Then as study material I’m going to give them thousands of historical stock charts converted into 3d, beveling up the stock price movement lines and make them trace their fingers on the line. The charts would run only upto certain arbitrarily chosen past points in time but I would urge my blind charges to carry on the “momentum” of their fingers….the future path which  the fingers take will be compared against actual historical movements and feedback will be provided….. if this experiment of mine ever gets done, then my hypothesis that blind people can make the best technical investors can be tested. Maybe this personal blind worm method of forecasting will work for me. I’ll write a book, become hugely famous and after a hundred years, people will falsely believe that the phrase “momentum investing” was coined off the tips of blind star traders.

The reason for this lunatic ambling within moving average envelopes is that expert opinions are certainly not helping:

The New York Times carries a story telling us all that the cloud of a double dip recession seems to have passed us by while Nouriel Roubini chastises the US economy planners that we are now defenceless against the looming threat of a double dip. A year or so back, if you’d have mentioned double dip to me, I’d have visions of Taj Mahal tea bags and “dip dip dip, and it’s ready to sip. Do you want it stronger, then dip a little longer. Dip, dip, dip..and it’s ready to sip”. But that’s a triple dip – maybe a new challenge worthy for Roubini. But for now, everyone and her pet poodle is talking of double dips:

Double Dip: the pet food of your pet bears. “Dip, dip and it’s ready to slip. For teddy to be stronger, dip a little longer. Dip, dip…and it’s ready to slip”.

I felt that this interview of the equity analyst, Sangeeta Purushottam dispensed some sane advice. It seems to say that there could be money waiting on the sidelines and it could come pouring in taking our local markets to euphoric heights. But the premise operating here is that there is indeed money waiting on the sidelines. Is there? A browse through global investing sites does not indicate a clamour to invest in the much discovered Asian bourses. Indeed, for all that noise about the NIFTY reaching it’s 31 month high, this country performance table by The Bespoke Investment Group is quite educative and humbling. But then the presses in the USA are printing and printing and printing. Strange things can happen.

So I crawled the SEBI website to ferret out FII net flows into Indian equity over time.  I left out derivative data and picked data representing the FIIs’ stock exchange investments and primary market data only. I think the chart speaks for itself. The main question however remains unanswered: is there is more cash coming India’s way via the FII route for the remainder of the year (net inflows)? Since Jan’10, c 60,000 crores of rupees have come into Indian markets via the FII direct participation in equity. Logic dictates that we should definitely get in more for the remainder of the 115 calendar days left in 2010. However, I noticed that typically there are 3 months (modal frequency) that see net FII withdrawals from the equity markets. We have seen two down months this year (January and May) – is a third one coming? So money will definitely be made, euphoria or not, but it calls for nimble trading and investing. That to me is a big problem since I am a worm after all. Any advise will be greatly appreciated.

Buying Property

Some time back Sushanta had asked me to write something about buying property. As luck would have it I was contemplating buying a house in Mumbai at around that same time, but dropped the idea. Not because the price was outside my comfort zone but mainly due to the fact that it clashed with my firm belief to buy houses only after they are nearly complete. I haven’t purchased any house which is “under construction” or “proposed construction” till date. I personally know of friends and colleagues who have been stuck with housing loans where they have started paying the interest component on the loan but the building is far from getting completed. This is the worst possible situation one can be in since the principal stands as it is and you only service the interest component. Many young families give in to the lure of booking property the moment it is conceived on the drawing boards of the architects since these are usually offered at a discount to the current market prices prevailing in the locality. The rate in one of Mumbai’s suburbs where I stay is c 10,000 /per sq feet ( ~1 lakh /sq.m ~USD 2,500/sq.m) and in this particular case I was being offered a flat @ 8,000 psf which would get ready in end 2012. The builder would have to be paid in installments (as and when the plinth, slabs, etc.) get ready. The builder is well known, location of the property is sexy and the future piece was being offered at a discount of 20% to current prices. I would effectively be giving a loan to the developer. Assumming that prices in that area escalate by 10% per annum (they have actually compounded up ~15%  in the past couple of years), it would mean a completion price of c 12,000 psf. I pay 8,000 today and get back 12,000 in 2 years time! I would effectively be lending money to the builder at > 22%! (It’s actually greater than 22% since I would paying for the flat in installments). Makes you wonder what kind of loony builder is this? Well, not quite for I think that Pareto’s rule applies in the housing construction acitivity as well. Close to 80% of the actual costs of a building are incurred during the last 20% of the construction acitivity. Fittings, lifts, floor work, workers wages, permits etc. are what consume up a lot of cash but are needed much later – therefore the builder enjoys the float till that time.

Anyways, given my personal situation I figured out that I’d have to take out a loan for 50% of the amount ( = 4,000/-). and shell out an interest @ Rs. 40 psf. Moreover there is always a chance that the builder over leverages himself and is unable to complete a project (or cuts corners). Idea dropped – I would be happy to deploy that capital in the capital markets and expect a modest 15% annualised return instead. At least I’d have near instant liquidity and can always withdraw in case the need for a house becomes a painful obsession later.

Here’s my two cents worth regarding home buying: 

  1. Decide if you want to rent or buy. pre-tax rental yields are in the range of 2% – 4% in the suburbs of urban India (my hunch). Which means its a pretty stupid business to let out flats which logically means that it must be quite smart to rent. But young families need to build assets and there’s tremendous social pressure to own a house, and therefore we feel the need to move down the list.
  2. There are three main things that one should consider when buying property. These are A) Location, B) Location and C) Location.
  3. Stay within your means. Do not extrapolate salaries into the future and do not overextend in the present. Who knows the tide might just turn and all outsourced jobs might get sucked back into the countries of their origin.
  4. Do not buy property which you cannot touch and see. Period. The risk of promises being broken is high.
  5. If you are a young family and are renting it – then buy a house subject to above 4 constraints.
  6. If you are a young family and are staying with your parents and have no house of your own – then buy (again subject to points 2 – 4 above)
  7. If you are any kind of family and already own houses (my category) buy your next one at outright cash as far as possible and only for portfolio diversification. Which means you’d already have mountains of wealth in other asset classes (not my category!). Unless of course, you can afford the additional leverage.

Taking point 7 forward, I’ve never been too much of a fan of the adage, “make money on Wall Street and bury it on main street”. Many of the visitors to my site would never have made enough money on Dalal Street anyways.

In case you get stuck at point 1 above and keep staying in rented places (many people I know do this), then please ensure that the notional excess of cash at hand is deployed wisely. Hard nut to crack for most. Especially for young Indians whose parents come from the boring mileau of the license raj and Hindu rates of growth. The earning generation’s distinguishing identity seems to be today’s conspicous consumption habits. If you have the fortitude to resist the temptation of “keeping up with the Junejas” and deploy the money in (>> inflation) longer term, boring occupations, then please – do drop off the list at point 1 itself.

An extension of point 2 above is a heads up: just because you have to buy a house, do not pick one up in too remote location/city however attractive the price would be. The risk of buying houses/land in remote cities and localities is that prices remain stuck for ages and the trigger may not come in the current generation (i.e. yours). Can you say with certainty where your kids will be once they are old enough to understand website posts like this? And that they will not curse you for buying assets which they have no interest in at all.

Another problem many non-native families to Mumbai (or any other city for that matter) face is their aversion to taking up residence at the periphery of the city center or further away from their workplaces. It may be difficult forgoing easy accessibility of all the interesting sights and sounds and tastes but the outwardly radial move is well worth it – you save money. Beyond a certain point the convenience factor of being in the center of the city is taken for granted and the irritation of staying in an outpost starts to wane. Logic would dictate that a cannily chosen outpost would appreciate faster than a much discovered nerve center. Something like mid-caps vs. large caps.

Does that mean that I do not personally prefer being long on property (other than the one where I reside)? I do – that’s the reason why I’ve sunk in some amount of money in Godrej Industries Ltd. (though not directly into Godrej Properties)

Stop Losses

Many investors err when they end up throwing good money after bad. The temptation to average the costs down has weighed down on most of us. The problem with this tactic is that it works only when you have studied the underlying asset very very thoroughly. Most of us do not do this. Most of us are not equipped to do this. Most of us do not have the time nor the patience to do this. The other mistake that many investors make is that they get into a position without having pre-decided their stop losses. Or ignoring the stop losses when confronted with a losing proposition.

Almost all of us would have had someone in our extended family or friend circle who might have been badly mauled by the markets and would have consequently vowed never to return. It’s not their trades or the risky nature of the markets that did them in. It’s their lack of discipline. So many times we hear the refrain that markets are too risky. Actually, the market is not risky at all – it is the behaviour of the investor that is risky. The market never induces you to buy. This weekend when I was in Bombay, my mother told me about the losses that my father had totted up during his investing misadventures. Luckily for us (my brother & I) he did not sell off his losses, he just ignored them. And these shares (most of them cyclicals) passed on to us after his demise. And wow! The cycle turned in 2002/03 and how! Imagine riding Steel Authority of India Limited from 6 to42 in a period of 18 months. That hooked me for life. Till the losses tested me.

It does not matter when you buy, it’s when you sell that’s most important. This post is one amongst the various efforts on my part to understand the full meaning of this sentence as per my 5Aug resolution. One can get out of a position making a profit or else leave the table with a loss. Stop losses are signposts that help you decide when to sell if your trade does not work out the way you intended it to be. There’s no emotion involved, just hard nosed, dispassionate, stoic discipline. Statistically, mostly men/boys invest – so much so that investing might seem like a male thing to do. But successful investing is really quite machinistic and dull. Stick to one trading system, do not flip in and out. Stick to your stop losses. Write down/visualise your goals for each position. Maintain a trading journal recording your behaviour and why you did what you did kind of thing. Boring. Please read this cool article which talks about the 5 uncommon rules of the really wealthy traders to get some sense of how boring trading can get! Putting money in a bank fixed deposit or better still a ULIP can be so exciting! You’d get all the time in the world to party.

Sometime back I saw the movie Kites. Kabir Bedi, a powerful casino owner plays the father of Nick Brown who tells this to his revenge driven son when the woman whom he was to marry elopes with Hrithik Roshan:

“The true gambler is the one who knows when to get up from the table”

The other anecdote that comes to mind is from a job interview that I had conducted for a senior position in my company some time back. The candidate was trading on the prop account of some agency and among other questions I had asked him about his trading style and attitude towards stop losses. The guy said that he had never ever violated his stops. The two people who reported in to him had busted their stops one time each. I don’t care if this was just for the effect but inspiration strikes from the most unlikely of places. I have read quite a few books on trading, psychology of trading but when I met this “pretending to be in control” guy I thought that if this chap can do it, why can’t I. I’ve respected my stops ever since – hopefully it will become a habit.

This is important since stop losses can protect you even if you suddenly get whiplashed by a sharp correction. In fact its quite cool since you will quickly be in cash and hopefully will be able to redeploy and make more than what the stops cost you. Which brings me to important question: What should the ideal stop loss be?

The quantum of stop loss depends on what you expect from your investments and who you are. If you trade in and out intra-day (the post is not meant to be read by such people anyways) then your stop loss levels will obviously be extremely tight. Maybe 1% – 2%? There’s a lot of material on discussion forums and websites which points out to 2% being a good rule of thumb. But I feel that if one trades for longer periods, across multiple settlement periods a level of 5% is good enough. The volatility in Indian stocks is high enough to justify a 5% stop loss level. This point is important since if you are an infrequent trader then there is a danger of getting whipsawed if you put too tight a stop. Putting too tight a stop is like writing an annuity cheque to your broker. Your choice of stop loss ideally should be predicated by:

  • your risk appetite
  • risk in each individual position
  • volatility of the position
  • the amount of capital locked into the position
  • market conditions – if you want to go long in a bearish market, it’s absolutely essential to impose tighter stops.
  • time frame for the trade (discussed above)
  • Bravado (best if this reason be read and forgotten)

 Mental stops do not work. Period. I have done some conditional formatting and alerts on my trading spreadsheet and the annoying things keep popping up reminding me to cut my losses and run. You could have your own custom system, more sophisticated than mine, but do not do it only in the mind. It’s easy to overrule one’s mind.

This piece is obvisouly written for people like me. Casual traders. Folks that have a day job and who can afford to look at stock prices only a couple of times a week when the market is on and perhaps 3 – 4 times a week at night while the market sleeps. Folks who want to flog their investible surplus for some alpha instead of letting it rot in bank deposits. The Anirudh Sethi Report, which incidentally became the first site to link to my website has a cool example of how stop losses can be used to make money a la big game shooting. The lesson is almost like a Zen Koan. In fact, Zen masters would make awesome traders.

Reliance Industries Limited

The biggest sloth in recent times has been the Reliance Industries (RIL) stock. As the market (i.e. the NIFTY) traipsed on from 4,800 to 5,500 in a matter of 3 months (~15%), I have been licking my chops (no, I do not work in the chop shop) and have been generally sporting a nice spring in my step. But now I do not know how long my sunny demeanour will last for I have just about picked up a biggish position in RIL and am squarely on the path of Mukesh Ambani. It’s a trading call, unlike the Godrej Industries investment of mine. I feel quite sanguine about the Godrej depoyment, but not so about the RIL punt. The former has careened up 22% (weighted average returns) in 2 months for me and I will surely add to the position should the stock correct in the future. There was news and informed criticism of the US Fed’s solving of its debt related problems by adding on more debt. It definitely means that they’ll have loads of cash sloshing around in their backyard which they will want to deploy in high alpha economies. So some of it will come to India and that may take our local market higher on from here. But since this is hot money and the investment managers need to keep booking profits, sure enough and soon enough the market should correct. Will give some more cash to Mr. Adi Godrej to manage when that happens.

But coming back to flirt with RIL, I have gone long the stock (cash) and have also bitten a bite of the 30Sep 1040 call. There is next to no liquidity (as of now) on the Sep call and maybe the informed, knowledgeable pundits will shake their heads – but I feel that I have a story. I almost never get my options right – the brokerage charges are also too high for my liking and moreover you need to A) be understanding of the math behind how option pricing works in reality and B) be nimble enough to strike (both in and out) at the right moment.

Earlier, I had briefly written about the drowsiness in the RIL counter here and have been keenly watching this oily worm every other night. As you can see from the chart, it has slithered down to 970. The Bollinger Bands and the RSI seem to be giving a buy signal unless the stock is stuck in a downward channel. Then it would be akin to catching a falling knife. These technical indicators work best when the underlying is smugly oscillating in an escalating envelope. Anyway, I have my grip on my stop losses. If one fears or loathes getting wet, then one should not venture into the sea. But remember, only deep sea fishing gives the largest catch. I also scoured the internet to see some reason behing this very sleepy state of this behemoth – at least on the bourses. there are a few things happening (as listed below) but I do not know if they matter much. You may be aware of the old chestnut about the market being a voting machine in the short term.

  1. They’ve started pimping their pumps. They are selling at same rates as that of the PSU oil retailers. I remember some of my trips around Bombay – the Reliance pumps were always closed. The price decontrol announcement by the Government seems to have opened up the nozzles at private oil vendors like RIL and Essar Oil (have a position there as well). BTW, one comes across a very interesting string of letters when we read about fuel retailing trade lingo – DODO COCO CODO (Dealer Owned Dealer Operated – Company Owned Company Operated and Company Owned Dealer Operated). Notice the absence of DOCO.
  2. Maybe the stock has been moribund due to the announcement of RIL’s acquisition of shale reserves in the US? Perhaps the markets did not like it?
  3. The company is going to raise some money by selling off some of its treasury stock. Is that why the stock has been tied down while the rest of the market was inching up?
  4. I think the real reason has been the orchestrated downgrading of RIL by some domestic and international brokerage houses towards the end of July based on the realisation that the KG Basin may not be able to pump out as much oil and gas as what was expected/communicated by RIL. So it’s like the force of gravity acting on a balloon. Things seem to have reached a state where the forces of buoyancy (market rising) and the forces of gravity (broker downgrades) have been counterbalacing each other. Any trade is now a bet on what gives.

My personal take is that RIL is too complicated a business to understand. I do not know how many brokerage houses themselves understand it’s business thoroughly. But the brokerage community lives by its own code – one of them being a shared recognition in the importance of belonging. There’s tremendous security if the whole bunch believes in, talks about and does the same thing. While you are not better off, but most importantly you are not worst off either. In fact there has been a book called Zachs method of investing whose central tenet is to make investing decisions based on a statistical analysis of brokerage ayes and nayes.

STOP LOSS. DONT THROW GOOD MONEY AFTER BADNot that I can claim to “undestand” the companies that I invest in. You really have to be a senior member of the insider team to know it all. But since the trajectory of the Indian market has been upwards during this past decade, it would take a terribly unlucky bloke to lose money on the markets – on a longer term basis. For me one thing is clear – most of the experts who I lend my eyes to are saying (in print) that there seem to be no signs of the market having topped out in the intermediate term. The logic therefore is that if the market needs to move up and reach it’s intermediate top (before the hot money decides to leave our shores), RIL needs to perform. Hope I get lucky on these punts. Stop losses are my pillows.

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