Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Few myths about investing

What do you do when your entire stock market investment suddenly halves in value - as it has for many people since January last year? Curse fate? Rail against market manipulators? Abuse the government for failing to protect your wealth?

You can do all that, but none of it will bring your money back. The best thing you can do is to look back and learn from it all. The world's best investors have done just that and made tons of money in the process. They then proceeded to write books on their successes, and made even more moolah.

Good for them, but not for you. Peter Lynch's bestseller, One-Up On Wall Street, earned him good money, but don't assume you will achieve the same success by following his methods. Success can never be copied.

The best way to start is by exploding a few myths and questioning the half-truths that pass for timeless wisdom. Let's start by examining them one by one.

Myth 1: Stock market investments will always outperform bonds and fixed-return avenues in the long run.

It's been true so far only if you stretch the definition of long run. Is five years long run enough, or 10 or 15? If you had invested in stocks in 1992, you wouldn't have beaten a bank fixed deposit in terms of returns for 10-12 years. In other words, the best definition of long run is almost forever. If you invest at market peaks, and the times are bad — as they seem now — you may have to wait 10-15 years to beat ordinary bank deposits. You may be lucky, and the markets may revive immediately, but if you aren't, stocks will outperform fixed avenues only over very long stretches. So, be prepared to wait.

Myth 2: Look at stock fundamentals, and you can never go wrong.

Again, this is partly untrue. The value of your stock — any stock — can rise only if others keep buying it. Even an Infosys can rise only if lots of people think its price will rise. This could be influenced by its profitability and other "fundamental" factors, but what gives you returns is liquidity — the willingness of other people to keep buying your stock in large numbers.

Myth 3: The amount you must invest in equity is 100 minus your age.

This is not bad advice, but the real point is your ability to shoulder risk. The assumption behind this formula is that when you are 20, you don't have dependents, and thus can afford to invest 80% of your spare cash in equity. I would restate this proposition by saying that the amount you invest in equity should depend on how much you are willing to lose forever. Equity should get as much money as you are willing to write off from your wealth. At 60, with my children married and a decent pension, I might want to risk 80% of my wealth in equity. It's fine, as long as I am prepared to lose it all.

Myth 4: Time in the market is more important that timing the market.

This is the same as myth 1, which says that the longer you stay invested, the more chances of you making money. Again, only partly true. Good investors know that timing is all. While no one can call market peaks or troughs correctly all the time, we all can figure out whether the market is in a bearish phase or bullish. You must time the market by investing more in bearish phases and less at other times.

Myth 5: Government bonds and debt investments are risk-free.

This is completely wrong. All listed instruments carry risks — including government bonds. At the very least, they carry interest-rate risk. When interest rates rise, the value of your bond falls — and you lose money. The only way to not lose money is to hold bonds to maturity, which is not a bad option for pensioners and others who want the income.

Myth 6: Buy land, for they ain't making any more of it no more.

This has been true for so long that people actually believe in it. However, the proposition depends on two premises — a growing population and economy, and fixed supplies of land. In stable economies with stable populations, real estate gives you returns similar to other avenues. In populous countries like India, realty prices do keep rising, but largely in urban centres and largely because the market structure is weak.




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