If stock market experts were so expert, they would be buying stocks, not selling advice. Norman Ralph Augustine, former Chairman of Lockheed Martin Corporation.
Those of us who, for several years now, have been placing our faith, trust and such meagre moolah as we have salted away from our honest toil, in India’s public sector banks, have had to rejig our investment strategies in more recent times. Time was when we plonked our hard-earned savings in 10-year fixed deposits for attractive interest of upwards of 10% annually. In fact, during the 70s and 80s, Government of India bonds through the Reserve Bank fetched us between 10 and 11% tax free. We would not touch the stock markets or anything associated with it, not even with the proverbial barge pole. Mutual funds? Never heard of them. Bulls and bears? Belonged to India’s streets and zoos, respectively. All that is now clean out of the window. Banks were safe as houses providing us with security and satisfactory returns.
That was then, this is now. Welcome to the age of slick fund managers, highly skilled at what they do, all of them well educated (Wharton and Harvard topping the list), articulate and beguiling on television news channels, telling us common folk what we should be doing with our money. Most of us have little choice but to listen to them in a dazed trance, the jargon-coated spiel flying over our heads, as our stolid banks are in no position to offer us anything to keep our heads above water. To say nothing of being anywhere remotely close to staying ahead of inflation. The choice is clear. We go back to our bank FDs and be happy with a safe, if piddling 6% annualized return (pre-tax), or be adventurous and dash off into the unknown, wild and wacky world of the stock markets.
The bourses offer you a bewildering variety of options in the form of shares, scrips, fund brands and schemes. Let’s not even get into the cryptic world of cryptos.The promise? Riches beyond your wildest dreams, or just possibly, total bankruptcy. Take the rough with the smooth, can’t make omelettes without breaking eggs and all that sort of guff. I am, of course, stretching a point to make a point. There are many conservative options as well, but don’t expect too much. If your risk appetite is low, you may earn a wee bit more than bank FDs, but the paper work is numbing. By the time you have signed the 75th page of the contract, your signature bears no resemblance to how you signed on the first page. Which means you might have to go through the torture all over again. High risk through equities can bring big rewards, but also erode your precious cash in double-quick time. You will also be constantly told to take the long-term view and not look for short-term gains. That is all very well if you are in the 25 to 35 age group. If you have crossed 70, you are in it for the rollicking short-term. Everything is relative.
Let us take the present scenario and how unfolding events over which you have no control, be it in India or anywhere else in the world, can affect the stock markets, making them jump up and down like a yo-yo. You have no idea why, but it is what it is. One way to maintain your sanity is not to watch the news on television or read the newspapers, rather like the sheep that covers its eyes believing the wolf can’t see it! Naturally that is not an option, unless you wish to hare off to a mountain cave and live like a hermit. In which case, why need savings at all? Live off nature’s bounty with a mountain goat for company. Let me get back to the land of the living.
I am sitting back at home in my rocking chair, safe in the knowledge that my investments in the stock market are currently up by about 25% percent. For the nonce. The pandemic, for the third time, seems to be behind us and the corporate sector is all agog. The government has bid ‘Tata’ to Air India, the Life Insurance Corporation has gone on the block and all is well with the world. The left of centre parties in parliament and the trade unions will be going ballistic for a while at the Government’s effrontery in selling the family silver and gold, but that too shall pass. Dalal Street, however, is happy.
The very next day, the Sensex tanks nearly 2000 points, because Russia is making some threatening moves towards Ukraine. Biden says Vladimir should be Putin his place, Boris Johnson has his hair in a twist, as is his wont. ‘The party is over,’ cries Boris from No.10 Downing Street, referring to their heavily publicized orgy, ‘I am in the clear.’ ‘Not quite Boris,’ says young Rishi Sunak from No.11, ‘I am moving in.’ Rishi’s father-in-law, IT czar Narayana Murthy celebrates at the prospect of his son-in-law becoming Britain’s next PM, but the Indian market continues to tumble. As a poor investor, I go to bed racked by bad dreams of being gored by bulls and being made mincemeat of by bears. Next day, Putin makes noises about a strategic withdrawal, and bingo, the stock market recovers all its previous day’s losses – in one fell swoop. This unpredictable volatility is hard to take. I consider hitting the bottle, but worry myself silly about following Keats’ footsteps – My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, or emptied some dull opiate to the drains. In any event, more than one small peg is sure to give me a hangover adding more misery. What is more, I don’t know the first thing about writing poetry.
Then there is the other hot potato, the barreling crude oil prices, if you’ll pardon the pun. Our Nifty and Sensex perform in inverse proportion to the movement of world oil prices. I am not about to explain why, mainly because I am not an expert on the subject, but you can always tune in to one of the business channels and get an earful. In fact, my morning paper had one of these wealth managers saying things like, ‘High oil prices are one of the traditional macro risks for India – each dollar of increase in oil prices adds $1 billion to our import bill.’ Took the words out of my mouth. It never worried me in the least bit what the OPEC countries were up to in the past. When I was at my bank branch office last week, I asked the manager why he can’t jack up interest rates. ‘Do it man,’ I said. ‘We will rush to your branch in droves and you won’t know what to do with the money. A promotion will be yours for the taking.’ He just looked at me wanly as if to say, ‘I am just a mere lackey, a minor cog in a large wheel.’ He removed his mask, took out his handkerchief and turned his back on me. I clearly detected a sniff blossoming into a sob. My heart bled for him. A fellow customer tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Leave him alone. Even the lady who headed up the National Stock Exchange consulted an unknown Himalayan yogi on the NSE’s finance strategies. What hope do we mere mortals have?’ He had a point. We are faced with yogis and Himalayan blunders on a daily basis.
Speaking of yogis naturally brings me to the ongoing state elections. As our Prime Minister recently said, in India we have elections and by-elections happening somewhere or the other throughout the year. And much like those mysterious oil prices, for some obscure reason, every time the BJP comes up trumps in a state or central election, the market zooms northwards, and whenever they lose the reverse happens. Perhaps for that reason alone, they keep coming back to power more often than not, irrespective of incumbency or anti-incumbency issues. The cynics will say it’s got something to do with the Ambanis and the Adanis, who hold the present dispensation in very high esteem. And let’s not forget the Tatas who, as mentioned earlier, have wrested control of the management of Air India. They too have joined the swelling ranks of BJP admirers. Ratan Tata was gushing on television, and why wouldn’t he? Which in turn has left many erstwhile Tata admirers between and betwixt.
Fortunately, the hijab row is not impacting the stock markets, one way or the other. Neither, for the moment, has the eruption of another major fraud involving a well-known public sector bank that is rapidly gaining notoriety and a shipping company, made waves. As a nation, we are becoming expert at riding regular scandal waves with equanimity. Another Rs.1500 crore siphoned off? Ho hum. Boring.
All of which leaves me in a bit of a quandary. Do I book profits while the going is good (before it goes horribly bad tomorrow), or do I stay invested for the long term and reap the rewards on the maxim that ‘they also serve who only stand and wait’? One thing is for sure. If I decide to follow the ‘stand and wait’ option, my 100th birthday is bound to be one heck of a bash, if I am still able to stand and haven’t breathed my last. Gate crashers welcome. The orange squash and lemonade (choose your poison) will be overflowing. Our front door, when open, will be wide enough to let in wheelchairs.