Stock Investing lessons from ‘Vikram and Betaal’
If you are an avid stock picker, or an aspiring ideator, you may identify with what I am going to say. The best of times for the markets are usually when new highs are regularly breached and stock prices defy gravity. No correction lasts more than a few days and investors are always waiting to buy before the markets climb again. If you wish to buy stocks that fall, you need to do it very quickly. If you aren’t nimble, the chance would slip away.
So, anxious investors act like Vikram (the king in the famous Indian fable Vikram and Betaal), and stock prices play Betaal (the ghoul who keeps escaping Vikram). Stocks simply aren’t available at valuations you like. Stock prices defy investment logic and investors often get exasperated trying to act on their own investment logic. Stock prices regularly fly off their shoulders to reach higher levels. For the herd, it is celebration hour. They buy the rise and merrily party on. But if you expect value investors and ideators to be happy, think again.
To the typical value investor, bull markets actually turn out to be a depressing phase. Meet a gathering of value-investing peers and you will see a dull, sombre mood. Conversations will inevitably be marked by exasperation. Strangely, higher valuations upset this gathering even as the street is cheering buoyant stock prices.
Losing an opportunity to buy at favourable valuations tends to greatly upset devout value investors. But not all members of the gathering will be upset. There will always be the silent, sober ones with a mind of their own.
Try finding one such investor and starting a conversation. A whole new way of dealing with the loss of opportunity will emerge. This investor has the attitude of a Zen teacher. Let’s call him a Zen investor. He will be cool and composed and is likely to be reading avidly about things that hardly interest the market. His disinterest in the market’s bullish fever will make you wonder if he really is a serious investor. Unlike others, he will not be vocally discussing new ideas and you may think he is disinterested in them. Observe more and you will see otherwise.
The Zen investor thinks of stocks too. He too seeks new winners, but not the way many of us do.
Knowing that his investment horizon will be much longer, he drops anchor for a long period. When valuations are high, he focusses on the businesses he would like to own where valuations are not right. Several of these stocks would be in the middle of long-duration corrections. He evaluates the quality of every business closely and identifies growth triggers in each of them.
After making a list of businesses, he starts evaluating their relative merits. He weighs their relative prospects and creates a ranking among his ideas. Once ranking is done, making the investment choices would be relatively straightforward. Then, he decides how to scale his position in each stock. Often, this happens gradually.
An important focus area for an investor during bull runs is the subset of businesses that are currently out of favour. And there may be several such businesses. A few among these could see dramatic change in the next cycle. While the markets are rising everyday, these stocks simply refuse to participate in the rally. Such businesses interest the Zen investor.
He identifies the levers that can change the prospects of such businesses. Looking for ideas that will work in the future is a continuous activity for him. Living with past ideas doesn’t interest him much. He begins to visualise what will work in the future when the rest of the investor community is still acutely focussed on the performers of present and past. Importantly, a Zen investor doesn’t rapidly change the core composition of his portfolio or chase momentum. He would be oblivious to what the most successful market movers are doing. The noise will be cut out almost completely. Such an existence can often be bereft of excitement. But that is the essence of what an investor must evolve into.
Investing is all about developing the most-suited state of mind—a mind-state that thinks beyond the present, moves ahead of time, thinks about how the future will evolve and is happy to leave past behind successes. But it is not just about state of mind. It is also about developing a method to manage oneself through long periods of time.
The term ‘distraction’ takes a whole new meaning for a Zen investor. While the rest of the market refuses to be distracted from the performing circus, he refuses to waste his time on it. To him, the performing circus of stocks is the real distraction.
Shyam Sekhar is founder of ithought, an investment advisory firm