Temperament cannot be bought or taught

I wrote this note to all of my subscribers. Hope you will find it useful too

A lot of new subscribers have joined us and so I am writing a short note to talk on several topics such as how to build your portfolio, our investment philosophy, ongoing crises etc. For those of you, who have been with me for a long time, this may seem like an un-necessary repetition. However I think it is important for new subscribers to know what they are getting into with me and for the old subscribers to be reminded of it.

Let me state this again – My approach is to buy good quality companies at a reasonable price. There is nothing magical or new about this. Every other value investor professes to do this and I am no different. There is no secret sauce and I make it a point to share my thought process and analysis as much as feasible.

I am not looking for quick flips based on interest rate changes, slightly better monsoon, modi’s reaction to Pakistan or some astrology sign. There could be others who practice this type of investing and it may work for them. I have no interest in doing the same.

I have practiced a value based philosophy for the last 15+ years and it has served me well. I have no plans of changing a sound and logical approach for something else in the future. As long as I continue to do follow it rationally and with discipline, I think the long term results will be good even with occasional spells of under-performance.

Building your portfolio
One the first comments I get from a new subscriber after joining is this – I had a look at the model portfolio and I cannot buy more than 2-3 positions for now. I have a stock response for that – please be patient and give it some time. I have usually seen that most new subscribers are able match the model portfolio over a span of 2-3 years as some stocks drop below the buy level and new positions are added.

How true has this statement been?

If you look at the price action of our 17 odd positions for the last two years – you will find that at least 14 hit the buy point and even went lower for a few days or more. So in effect, it’s quite possible to be 80% matched to the model portfolio for those who joined the subscription in the middle of 2014. I do not have the statistics of how many have done that, but my point is that over a 1-2 year time frame, one will get enough opportunities to buy and build your portfolio. One needs to have the patience to do that and not get swayed by short term events.

Recurring crises
We started the model portfolio in Jan 2011. We have had several actual and imagined events such as Grexit (did not happen), Chinese hard landing (cannot say if that has occurred), Brexit (did happen), oil crash (occurred in 2014) and mismanagement of the Indian economy by the previous government.

These are the big events which come to mind. If you pick up a newspaper, there is a lot more to worry about from day to day. Now imagine if we had remained in cash or got frightened out of our positions due to some real or imaginary risk and compare that to what we have achieved in those years. Does it make sense to take actions based on unknown guesses about the future or concentrate on individual companies and make informed decisions?

Now someone could counter this logic by pointing the risk of 2008/09 collapse when mid and small caps crashed by 60%. What if one of these events had snowballed into a similar crisis?
Let me answer that concern via two arguments

– For starters, one cannot invest based on the low probability, high impact macro events. One can diversify against black swan risks at an individual company level, but not at the country level. To give an extreme and silly example – how will you protect yourself from the risk of an asteroid crashing into a major city in India and causing a major economic crisis? Can one really diversify against such an extreme risk?
– My second argument is that one needs to invest based on the higher probability risks (such as inflation) and insure against the low probability, but extreme ones. In other words, invest to beat inflation or secure your retirement and buy life/ health insurance to hedge the other extreme kind of risks. Finally there are some kind of risks, where one can only hope and pray that they don’t occur and we can do nothing about it.

Having the right temperament
If a 10-15% drop in the portfolio is going to scare you (as it may have in Feb of this year) and cause you to lose sleep, then equities are not for you. I can share my analysis and thought process, but cannot fix your temperament. You will have to bring a steady and calm mind of your own to the table.

If you think you cannot bear to see your portfolio drop by 15% or more from time to time, now is a good time to exit. I don’t think there is anything to be ashamed of in recognizing your risk tolerance and acting according to it. My own family was never into equities as they were never comfortable with the volatility of the stock market. I started investing for them a few years back after they felt confident that I will not blow up their savings (or maybe it was just their love for me …I don’t know)

Looking for trends
Some of you may have noticed that the model portfolio generally does not have a specific theme or view. One will often hear from investors that they have positioned their portfolio to benefit from better monsoon or revival in capex or some such factor.
The benefit of identifying a broad trend and then investing to it has a lot of upside. However I have generally not followed this form of top down, trend based investing as I have found it difficult to identify a truly long term trend and then find a reasonably priced idea to leverage this trend.

One needs to keep in mind that a good monsoon or lower inflation is not a long term trend, but only specific events which play out for a small period of time. A long term trend would be something like demand for housing/ housing loans which leads to a growth of 2-3X of the average GDP growth rate.

We have three positions which seem to play to this theme. However if you read the original thesis of these ideas, I was looking far more closely at the company specific factors and only vaguely realized that there were some tailwinds for the sector. It is after holding these stocks for 2+ years that we can now make a story of a theme or trend for these ideas, but this was never the case when we started these positions.

Why am I discussing this point now? I think there is a lot of value in identifying such trends early and investing based on it, provided one does not overpay for it. As a result, I have now started looking at some of the current ideas from a trend point of view. We will however not know if the trend was real or a mirage, till a few years pass.