Once I built a railroad, I made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?
(Taken from the song ‘Brother Can You Spare A Dime?’, composed in 1932 during The Great Depression and made famous by Bing Crosby.)
One has often heard meteorologists and weather pundits prattling on about ‘V-shaped depressions’ when they gloomily predict the onset of a cyclonic storm about to hit the poor east coast or the rich west coast of India’s land mass, sending hundreds of thousands of people scurrying for cover. However, in recent months I have been auditor to many of our economic boffins talking about a ‘V-shaped recovery,’ particularly in the context of all the doom and gloom surrounding the Covid19 catastrophe. A quick aside is in order here. To those of you who are scratching your heads wondering what my being an auditor has anything to do with anything, let me offer an explanation. I am not a book-keeping auditor, thank heavens. At least, not in the conventional sense of a poor sap poring over balance sheets, expense statements and tax returns finding a clever way to effect another tax dodge for his client. I can think of better ways to earn a living. I mean no offence to the financial auditing community. You need them now and then like you need an enema now and then. My aim is different. I employ the word ‘auditor’ to denote its original Latin derivative – audire, meaning to hear or to listen. However, I digress for which I crave your indulgence. I am a rambling writer and the occasional meandering goes with the territory.
I revert to ‘V-shaped recovery.’ Being a close follower of a couple of our television channels which specialise in business and financial news, I am completely bowled over by the number of experts who hold forth on a variety of issues which have a direct bearing on our investments and the consistently erratic stock market. I have invested a pretty penny on the bourses, and consequently, what the business community’s thought leaders have to say on a daily basis is of paramount importance to me. If only I could follow what they are trying to say. All the while, my eyes keep darting to the bottom corner of my television screen where I am treated to a running live counter of the Nifty 50 and Sensex performance. Those numbers keep yo-yoing all day long, bar weekends and public holidays, moving from red to green and back to red again. My auditor (the tax planning guy), who is a good listener, cautions me against binge viewing of these channels on account of the fact that a) I won’t understand anything being discussed and b) my blood pressure will be showing an upward spike, unlike the stock market, which favours a sharp southwards slant. He has a point but do I listen or audire? No way, José. As to why I must torture myself by speculatively plonking my meagre ill-gotten gains on the mercurial mutual funds and share scrips, or seek customised investment strategies through Portfolio Management Services, the answer is self-evident. No other option, baby. Interest rates have plummeted, bank deposits are safe (or are they?) but closely wedded to the well-founded economic principle of the law of diminishing returns. More so when you take into account inflation. You see, even I have picked up the lingo. Further, if you happen to be a senior citizen, which I am, the banks offer an extra half percent interest which does not exactly make me jump up and down with unbridled joy. In any case, jumping up and down at my age, joyfully or otherwise, carries needless risks.
To try and obtain some clarity on what this whole investing lark is all about (bit late in the day, I admit), I decided to buttonhole one of my investment advisors who happens to be a bit of a guru in these matters and who is also to be seen every now and then on some of our television channels. Without wasting any time or beating around the bush, I came straight to the point. Let’s just call him Mr. Bose.
‘Now look here Mr. Bose, you keep asking me to take a long term view on stocks. That is a relative term. What is a long term perspective for a 70 year old? I have taken a long term view since I was 30 years old, and I am still being given the same spiel. Why don’t you change the script, if not the scrip? Ha, ha.’ I laughed at my own feeble joke, but Mr. Bose was not amused.
‘Sir, I think you’ve done reasonably well, all things considered,’ replied Mr. Bose, evenly. ‘This Covid19 is a black swan event which no one could anticipate. However, even as we speak things are picking up and we fully expect a V-shaped recovery.’ Clearly Mr. Bose was fully into his stride.
‘I can see you’re in form Mr. Bose but you can’t impress me with that double whammy. V-shaped recovery and black swan event, indeed. I have looked up the latter, which is repeated ad nauseam on TV and have come to learn that it denotes a very rare if impossible event, black swans not being extant. However, this V-shaped recovery I am still coming to terms with. Please do explain. I am all ears.’
‘Gladly Sir,’ continued Mr. Bose. ‘A V-shaped recovery is one which is, well, V-shaped, if you get my drift. It kind of starts at the top, hurtles down at a 45 degree angle and shoots straight back up again at the same angle. It’s a geometry thing, Sir.’ I looked at him dubiously but decided to be patient. I failed in geometry in school. All those set-squares, protractors and compasses had me in a right tizzy.
‘Right Mr. Bose, next you’ll start blathering about Pythagoras’ theorem, isosceles triangles and how they affect movement of shares. Kindly enlighten me, in words of less than two syllables, whether my investments are safe in your portfolio’s portmanteau. You see, I am getting the hang of this fund manager speak.’
‘You certainly are Sir,’ said Mr. Bose somewhat patronisingly. ‘Portfolio’s portmanteau, eh? Nice one, Sir. I must use it with some other client. As to your investments, when I take into consideration your cost of churning coupled with the dividend distribution tax, not to speak of the balance maturity tenure of your schemes and add to that the Alpha coefficient operating in a bear market along with indexation, I must say that the NAV of your combined portfolio is kind of holding its own. Always assuming the Nifty can break the 11k barrier soon. It’s quite simple really, when you think about it.’
My monumental patience (a saint could have taken his correspondence course from me), was beginning to wear thin. However, Mr. Bose bashed on regardless. I waited for him to finish and spoke to him as follows: ‘Now you listen to me very carefully, my fine, feathered, financial friend, who spouts gobbledegook clichés. I don’t know much about V-shaped or U-shaped recoveries. At this juncture, my investments are going pear shaped which I need hardly remind you, could turn me into a basket case, from which I am not sure I will recover – in U or V shaped form. Frankly, I’ve had it up to here with lock-in periods, entry and exit loads, brokerage fees, open-ended and close-ended schemes, bull market runs, bear market runs, causing me to run to the toilet with the runs. If you get my meaning.’
Mr. Bose was by now a spent force. He was ready to throw in the towel. ‘Sir, you accuse me of speaking “gobbledegook,” whatever that means, but with due respect Sir, have you heard yourself speak? It sounds like English but you lost me long ago.’
I smiled benignly at the man. ‘You poor, lost soul. That makes two of us, Mr. Bose. Me speakee English, you don’t follow. You speakee English, I don’t follow. Better you don’t speak.’
It was Mr. Bose’s turn to run to the toilet for a spot of the trots.
Postscript: Meanwhile, it has been reported that a 35 year old man in Bangalore revealed to his parents that he plans to bump himself off as his business had gone kaput, thanks to ‘financial problems.’ His ageing parents told their depressed son if he is set on this decision, he may as well kill them off first. It was probably a rhetorical plea but the young man, having been brought up to obey his elders, smothered them to death in the dead of night with a pillow. At this point he lost the plot. Hurling himself into a river from an insufficient height, he reckoned without a shallow rock bed, fell on it, sustained severe injuries, was rushed to hospital and sadly recovered, thus rendering his suicide plans abortive. And guess what, the young man was a professional auditor! Go figure.