Skill vs Luck in Trading

Here’s my take on the eternal debate. Let’s indicate the unknown (i.e. what trading is?) by ‘x’. Now, luck and skill seem to be at 90 degrees to each other (i.e. only luck and no skill as well as only skill and no luck will both take you to the cleaners, I guess). Furthermore, since we are talking about successful traders here, it is unlikely that any would be found on the (all skill, no luck) or (no skill, all luck) lines. Which means that every successful trader has to have some modicum of both. Elementary, but I am sure how many of us are humble enough to recognize and appropriately fear the role that luck plays in our fortunes.

Kelly Formula (Part 1)

Most of my smart winners have been small capital bets while the losers have seen larger bets of capital. One of the reasons for this could be that catching a high beta asset at its low point (about to breakout; Lower Bollinger  touch; RSI < 20%, whatever) has given a higher alpha to me since the price move (due to high beta) has been swift and definitive. The low beta stocks, giving the illusion of secure staidness, have killed often by bleeding a part of my portfolio to death. Since these are the blue chip, low beta shares, I have been tempted to invest a larger proportion of my capital as compared to the mid/small cap sprightly upstarts being lured by the illusion of safety. As I look into my trading log, it is the multiple smaller bets that have really been multi baggers for me. So, I spent a good part of the long weekend reading on optimal bet sizes!

It is a common belief that a high amount of beginning traders do better with paper trading than once actually live. The reason being the realization of losing ‘real’ money. Knowing how to deal with profits doesn’t make one a successful trader insomuch as being able to handle losses. Every trade can have five potential outcomes – big profits, small profits, par, small losses and big losses. Taking the big losses out of the picture will logically give any trader less chances of frowning. Big losses can come due to decision paralysis (and waiting in the hope that the price will recover) or large capital outlay. The topic of this post is to ponder on understanding what should be the right size of trades. While its natural to think that the size of trades depends on a) your personal strengths and weaknesses, b) amount of capital, b) trust in an investment thesis, c) degree of diversification etc but like all good things there is a formula for this too! Namely, the Kelly Formula. This was designed by John Kelly who worked for AT&T and devised this for use in long distance communication – signal loss; signal to noise ratio and all those nice things. Since there are two basic components to the formula: win probability and win/loss ratio, this found application in the world of trading as well. The Kelly Formula states that for any given stock, you should invest the probability of winning times the payoff minus the probability of losing divided by the payoff. It is represented by the equation:

 where, P = payoff (i.e. odds offered by the betting syndicate); W = probability of winning and L = probability of losing


So while the debate on chance vs. skill in investing continues, here are some of my investigations and thoughts on whatever I have read and managed to understand so far. At the core of all this line of enquiry is a desire to figure out a personal method to ensure that I statistically end up putting more money on my winning ideas as compared to my duds. If I get to do that I am pretty sure, I would  be all :)s.

So back to the ruminations on the Kelly Formula: If you are worth 1 crore (say) then it’s clearly stupid to be risk averse for small amounts like INR 5,000 (say). You should regard “gaining 5,000” and “losing 5,000” as equal-but-opposite faces of the same coin. But it’s very rational to be risk averse for 50 lakhs. Whatever I have seen and heard from people with modest wealth around me suggests that people in fact behave in a predictably irrational manner when faced with these little choices of chance that their investment process throws at them. Penny wise and pound foolish…

But what if we step out of the frame a bit and focus on the really long term? Personally, if my health (mental as well as physical) stays with me, I very well have a further three decades of investing ahead of me. However, let’s take a hypothetical case – say you inherit a sum of money at a young age and to invest it for a really long time. [if wishes were true…] You always have a choice between a safe investment (treasuries) and a myriad of risky bets whose probabilities of outcomes is also known to you. [this is possible in a casino, but never on Dalal Street, but please lets go ahead with the logic]. Also, lets visualize that you are breaking up your investment time horizon into finite smaller periods (could be years, months or even weeks or days) at the end of which you take stock (i.e. P&L) and start again with whatever you’ve got at that time (i.e. rebalance your portfolio at periodic rests). The Kelly Formula gives you an explicit rule regarding how to divide your investments to maximize long-term growth rate.

There is this book called Fortune’s Formula by William Poundstone which I need to read to understand this better. Part two of this post will come after I have read that book and some more.

Read less, Trade Less

Among the many misconceptions/myths prevalent, one is that you should be an active trader if you want to make money from equity markets. Well, ‘active’ does not mean actively buying or selling – but active in being knowledgeable about the economy/markets etc. Not every ball should be hit – good batsmen realize that some balls outside the off-stump should be left alone.

Traditional finance theory have always recommended that individual investors simply buy and hold the market portfolio, or at least a well diversified portfolio of stocks. The typical retail investor doesn’t hold a well diversified portfolio nor does he desist from churning his portfolio every now and then. The attached paper delves into the subject and concludes that younger and male investors trade more aggressively than older and female investors.

In addition to overconfidence and gender, the more frequently individuals invest in information, the more they trade. To stretch the point further, investor psychology research has also pointed out that trading behaviour is also sensitive to the sources of information used by investors. Overconfident investors trade more frequently when they collect information directly using specialized sources. Investors getting stock related information from banks and/or brokers tend to trade more frequently than those who interact socially and are informed via friends and family or those who use non-specialized media like newspapers, financial magazines etc.

News, ‘hot tips’, brokerage reports et al are like deadly vortexes that can suck in an average investor and sink his portfolio hard. When you play information (budget announcements, RBI will come out with a rate cut, employment figures, economic survey etc) you are playing a game which is dominated by the big boys. Big players use news events to trade. In fact, some of them may even not be above ‘creating’ news if there is no ‘real’ news available. I recollect myself buying a share nearly concomitant to the release of a nice upbeat equity research report on the stock only to realise that it was all downhill from there on. May not happen always and maybe i was just plain unlucky and that things are not so murky in the world of equity research, but it pays to be very, very paranoid if you a small chap. In any case, smart money gets to see the research report first before mainline media catches it and sends it out for the universe to consume. Furthermore, when the big players trade, they trade such large holdings that when they initiate trades, they typically move markets. If you are the sucker who’s caught the other end of the rope, chances are very high that you’re the small fry who has come in attracted by the recent news blurb on the stock and are entering the room just as the party’s ending and the biggies are leaving. Best bet for the little ones – do not rush into acting on every thing that you hear or read.

Worst off are the ones caught in the middle – i.e. ones between the retail rats and the fat cats; the higher net worth individuals who do not consider themselves to be small and ergo turn over their capital to professional wealth managers or bank/broker dealers. Sometimes, unbeknownst to them, their money managers may resort to excessive churning of the portfolio in the lure of commissions. In this regard, the stock turnover ratio has been commonly used to measure and keep tabs on such fleet footedness, but really it is another ratio – the commission to equity ratio which is a better way of measuring the impact of excessive trading in a very direct way, i.e. the cost impact.

The chart above shows how often I have traded over the past 10 years.

Abortive Gold Trade

Of late, the NIFTY has been climbing up while Gold has been dropping. When I looked at the short term technical charts of NIFTY and Benchmark Gold Bees Index (I am long this index on a long term basis), I had an idea – to short the NIFTY and go long on Gold. So I chewed upon this trade set-up idea this weekend and finally perished the thought. Interestingly, my gut-feel (aka intuition or 6th sense) is a biased coin. When I have relied on my inner voice and followed the thought or idea that has sprung to my mind first, I have generally found myself to have chosen wisely. But this is generally related to work related and other decisions. Now, investing is certainly not about which-turn-to-take-from-Masab Tank type of inner voice invocation. So, it is not surprising that for me, when it comes to investing gut-feel, usually my initial gut-feel reaction has always tended to be dead wrong!!! Quite a personal contrarian indicator.

The chart alongside shows the 7.45% return of the NIFTY over the trailing 12 months against the very significant 16.25% returned by the Benchmark BeES index. The first half of the trailing calendar year has generally seen gold prices moving in lock-step with equity prices. From February this year onwards, the correlation has turned mildly negative which is what seems intuitive. So, commodity prices being the primary fuel of the stock indices has ceased to be the case for now as metals and of course, oil contracts. As I read up more on the internet, I figured out logic and reasons for why my initial gut-feel spawned trade idea was bad. On Gold, with Greece passing austerity measures, there is less of a motivation to look at gold as a safe haven in the very short term. So, it is likely that the coming week will be bearish or directionless for the yellow metal. Moreover, the US markets are going to be closed on Monday (4th July) and therefore gold could continue going the “buy the rumour, sell the fact” way down. On Thursday, the ECB and the BoE will have interest rate decisions announced and Friday will see the release of non-farm payroll data in the US. Therefore, it is unlikely that traders will take a strong view before these data points are clear.

So, if you look at the above chart, my hunch is that during the coming week, the gap between the yellow line (proxy for Gold) and the NIFTY will narrow down. Even if it doesn’t, no big deal for I have done the best thing that practise has taught me re investing: ignore my otherwise extremely reliable inner voice when it comes to pulling the trigger on investment decision making. Even if my intuition is proved right, at maximum I would just be guilty of an opportunity loss. Trade idea postponed, if not entirely killed, to next week now!

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.


Portrait of a Portfolio – I

I have been managing an equity portfolio for someone since the past 5 – 6 years. While the returns over the past 6 years or so have been just about acceptable (CAGR of 17%), not much advance planning went into it. Of course, I do spend a lot of time in assessing and worrying about the positions (mostly direct equity longs) but there were no targets or goals till the beginning of the current calendar year. I can be quite cavalier about my money and take risks and yet not lose an iota of sleep even if I end up deeply and irrevocably in red. I once remember dunking 50% of one of my annual bonuses on a stock only to see it dropping 80% in value in the months to come. That was some years back and I still flinch whenever I come across that company’s name again. I had done almost everything wrong in that trade. I now always keep a printout of the chart (see the grotesque graphic above) of that trade at hand to serve as a grim reminder. I’ve not repeated that mistake yet. A set of scathing and self berating doodles are annotated on the chart and a bit more mature post mortem occupies its place of pride in my trading journal.

But it was my money and I had no qualms in losing it. With someone else’s money however, the game is completely different. There is a lot of responsibility and fear when you realise that the person has reposed not just his/her funds, but his/her trust in you. I do not know if professional fund managers think like this. They should, in my opinion. Recently there was talk of allowing the National Pension Scheme (NPS) to invest a small portion of its funds in the equity markets. The logic is impeccable – domestic, sticky money can be routed to the ever hungry infrastructure sector and its reliance on Foreign Domestic Investment (FDI) can thus be reduced. Point to note being that the country has not done too well in terms of attracting FDI this year. The Foreign Institution Investments (FII) that have been propping up the local markets to dizzying heights are not the same as FDI. I think everyone agrees that there is a Schwarzenegger sized opportunity in India’s infrastructure sector. I guess obstinacy and arrogance have stalled that move. Or is it could be that a similar sense of heightened anxiety and responsibility over playing with the public’s money is keeping the boring pension funds away from the capital markets? Bull!

Coming back to this portfolio that I manage: the advent of 2010 saw all the stock market experts proclaim the new year to be range bound and choppy. All surprisingly chorused that stock specific action could not be ruled out however. Given the avalanche of such advise, I decided, for the first time to have a calendar year end target for the portfolio. The return expectations being very sensible (15% per annum), my target therefore is to grow the portfolio by 17.65% between the period 1Jan’10 to 31Dec’10. Given the range bound prognosis of the local experts, I realised that frequent trading by booking short term gains and doing this a multiple times over will be key to reaching the target. Since we pay 15% as short term capital gains tax on equity profits, the 15% target was scaled up to 17.65%. This translates to a tiny 1.364% per month. Easy? That’s what you think! Not my experience really. Brokerage charges were not considered – but these would be offset by the fact that there would be some (non taxable) long term gains and that the effective tax outgo would be less than 15% of the net gain since some interim short term losses would certainly be available to set off against a part of the short term gains.

The chart on the right shows how I have fared in managing that chunk of money.  The solid green line scripts the movement of the portfolio value while the red line is the NIFTY. The light green bars climbing up from the x-axis depict the cash position in the portfolio. As you can see, luckily for me, I went all in just at the start of Sep’10 – just before the current climb began! Mostly in frontline counters. The light blue line is the monthly cumulative target line and as you can see I’ve crossed the target (represented by the faint dashed horizontal line at the top of the chart) already. I crossed it on 5Oct’10 with 87 calendar days to spare! So what should I do? Get out of it all, stay in cash and spend the remainder of the year with a big grin plastered on my mug planning and plotting the CY’11 strategy? Hardly. Interesting days lie ahead and much remains to be done. But I’ll feel awful if I dip below the blue line again. Since this time around there would be no FIIs to pull me out. The big mistake for me this time around happened during the onset of May’10. While the NIFTY fell c 8% – 9% during this time, this particular portfolio fell 12% – 13%. The additional delta was on account of a large long call on the NIFTY. And that hurt, I got numbed and I just let theta take control and it was game over very quickly. The only saving grace was that, unlike the earlier blunder of mine (mentioned above; on my own money), a lot of market participants got suckered and lost a lot of money in May this year. So, I had August company.

I’m worried about what will happen to this portfolio for the remainder of the year. A lot of public issues are going to hit the Indian capital market scene very soon and they are expected to suck out money from the ring. The canary is expected to sing loudly in the coal mines this winter. And then a quick round of profit booking by the FIIs cannot be ruled out. The street also looks divided on whether the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) will affect another round of rate hikes. I guess the market will wait for some times for the results to start hitting the newsreels and then whatever will happen will happen. But yes, I will definitely post about how I fared during the first week of next year!

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