Thursday, 27 December 2012

10 Commandments for Mutual Fund Investing

I thought to write an article on “where to invest in the year 2013”. I appreciate the fact that all of us are looking for these readymade answers to our financial problems but then this is like feeding fish to a person. I thought and pondered that rather than giving fish to the readers and feeding them for one day why not teach the readers how to fish themselves and make their tummy full for life. As such I ventured on writing the “10 Commandments on Mutual Fund investing” which I hope will give financial freedom to the readers and what better a New Year gift than freeing somebody from money and its problems.

Money is a very strange thing–human beings make rational decisions while dealing with most aspects of life but make serious errors of judgment when it comes to dealing with money – while dealing with different aspects of money and finance including earning, protecting, budgeting, saving, spending, leveraging, investing and insuring. Completely rational investors take totally irrational decisions when part of crowd – their own individual rational minds come down many levels to the irrational level of the crowd. Many a times, individual rational intelligent persons commit simple mistakes while making investment decisions. And those mistakes get compounded while investing in mutual funds. Fund managers, marketers as well as the markets themselves have its own ways of finding and exploiting human weaknesses. I lay down the “10 Commandments on MF investing” which will help in improving your mutual fund investments thus leading you on the path to achieving financial independence.

Commandment 1: Thou shall make a proper Asset Allocation Plan
Asset Allocation is the primary premise for investments. Long term statistical analysis has shown that 90% of portfolio variability is due to asset allocation while only 10% of the variability in portfolio performance is due to market timing and stock selection. The only thing in your control is asset allocation and the good news is that 90% of portfolio variability is due to asset allocation. Remember that all assets move in business and economic cycles of their own and while one asset might be in a bear market there might simultaneously be another asset class in a big bull market of its own. The broader fund groups of equities, bonds and commodities (others being real estate and art) will lead you to the gateway of long term wealth creation and sustenance. While allocating assets, remember to allocate only that much money to equity funds which you don’t require for atleast the next 5-years and which you can emotionally see it going down by upto 50% in the short term and not panic on it. Risk and return are inextricably entwined. As a general rule, do not expect higher return from safe investments. However, do expect higher long term wealth creation from the optimal asset allocation in various funds whose combined risk as a portfolio is much less than the risk of the individual funds which make it up. Portfolios behave differently from their individual constituents. The aim of an optimal asset allocation is not to invest only in safe assets but to invest in a combination of safe and risky assets whose combined risk is much less than the individual constituents and at the same time offers higher degree of return. Therefore, focus on the behavior of your portfolio and not its constituents. Small portions of your portfolio will often sustain serious losses, but will cause only minor damage to the whole portfolio.

Commandment 2: Thou shall budget for yourself via regular MF investing
Try to create a budget surplus by ensuring your income is more than your expenses. And then channelize your additional income properly into investments like mutual funds. Make paying yourself via budget surplus a priority like how you pay to the Government (taxes), bank (loan EMIs), utility bills, school fees etc. Then start a proper systematic investment plan (SIP) in your favorite MF schemes keeping in mind Commandment 1.

Commandment 3: Thou shall not over invest in Liquid Funds
Liquid Funds are only for parking “temporary surplus” and not for long term investments. If you believe that liquid funds are for long term investments then you believe in the fallacy that “saving is investing” and are in for a rude shock. The rules of money permanently changed in the year 1971 when the then US President Mr. Richard Nixon took the US off the gold standard and granted itself the license to print money. Since, then the US Dollar and other world “currencies” have depreciated while the price of all commodities measured against it be it precious metals like gold, silver or industrial metals like steel, copper, aluminum or agricultural commodities – all have gone up and will continue to go up over the long term. That’s why we call “money as currency”. Therefore, don’t save in terms of money – currency whose value is continuously and incessantly losing its value. In this modern information age of currency, savers are losers. Hence, Liquid Funds are to be used just as an instrument to park temporary funds in order to earn superior return on your short term funds as compared to bank deposits and not as a long term investment vehicle.

Commandment 4: Thou shall not ignore Equity Funds
Thou shall not ignore equity funds because they are the gateway to long term wealth creation. If you ignore equity funds and only invest in debt funds then you are doing the grave mistake which may considerably hinder your long term wealth creation potential. An all bond portfolio is the not the less riskiest portfolio; infact addition of a small amount of stock to an all bond portfolio actually reduces the risk slightly while improving the return considerably. The corollary to this would be that addition of a small amount of bond to an all stock portfolio would significantly reduce risk while only marginally bringing down the return.

Commandment 5: Thou shall not commit the common mistakes while investing in MFs
Many a times, individual rational intelligent persons commit simple mistakes while making investment decisions, which then get compounded while investing in mutual funds. Fund managers, marketers as well as the markets themselves have its own ways of finding and exploiting human weaknesses. I try to mention some of them below:
Ø  Don’t imagine that a low NAV is cheap while a high NAV is costly. A MF unit in itself has no value – it is “not” an asset like a house property, bond, equity stock, gold etc. Yes, the MF unit in itself simply has no value on its own – it derives the value from the underlying asset which it owns. The NAV is nothing but the value of the total underlying assets of the fund divided by the number of units.
Ø  Don’t make the mistake of believing that a MF NAV is too costly or cheap because a MF unit can’t be costly or cheap – it is not an asset in itself which can be costly or cheap – it derives its value from the underlying investment. If the value of the underlying investment goes up then the NAV will go up and vice versa.
Ø  Buying MF NFO at “par” is another derivative of the first two mistakes – an investor can’t become more foolish when he / she invests in a MF NFO simply because it is available at “par value”. As explained above, the MF NAV is meaningless in itself as it is merely the value of the underlying asset. Therefore, buying a MF unit because it is available at par value would be one of the most silliest mistake which an investor can commit with its money.
Ø  A grave mistake which investors do is sell winning funds while stick on to the loosing ones. It’s important to be realistic about investments that are performing badly including MFs. Recognizing the losers is hard because it’s also an acknowledgement of your own mistake. But, it’s important to accept and book a loss or else future loss would be even higher.  
Ø  Paying too much credence to recent past performance because if you give too much importance to “continuous performance by looking at daily NAV” then you are inviting unnecessary worries for you in the form of selling a good fund and moving to a not so good fund, the MF churning advisors, income tax, higher commissions and other costs.   
Ø  Fund churning is a common advice which might be showered on you by your MF distributor. Instead of churning your fund just churn the MF distributor who gave you that advice. Distributors love the churning game – simply because it gives them extra commissions and fees while it gives you extra income tax, expenses and most probably a sub optimal fund.
Ø  You may be put in the dividend temptation web by the MF distributors and marketers that a fund has declared dividend and it is trading cum-dividend and therefore take the advantage of earning “free” dividends. But, there is no free lunch in this world – particularly not in the world of investments and mutual funds. The dividend which a fund pays to an investor is immediately reduced from the NAV of the fund. So what is the sense of the dividend when on one hand you receive the cash and on other hand your NAV falls by that much amount? On the contrary, I would say that don’t invest in a fund which has declared lofty dividends because that is against your purpose of investments –you are entrusting your money to the Fund Manager to manage it on your behalf and not to return back to you!
Ø  Don’t fall victim to fancy Funds, fads and fantasies. Many new funds and schemes prop up during times of exuberance. Banking Funds will be launched when banking stocks have performed well, infrastructure funds when the infrastructure stocks are rising or IT funds when the technology boom is underway, so on and so forth. These sector funds are simply smart tactics to collect money from the gullible investors. No sector or theme continuously performs well over a longer term. Even worse than it, a sector fund is generally launched after the sector has already performed well because the fund has to show good past performance to attract fresh investor money. And by applying the “law of averages”, it becomes more likely that the sectors which have already performed well in the past will actually not perform so well in the future. Hence, never fall prey to fund gimmicks and invest in sector or theme based funds.

Commandment 6: Thou shall protect yourself from Fund Robbers
Thou shall invest in the fund which shields and protects you from all the 5 major fund robbers – inflation, income tax, interest rates, market volatility and incorrect asset allocation. And the fund which protects you from all the 5 fund robbers is the age old simple but ignored – Balance Funds. The balance fund invests both in equities and debt. The equity component in the balance fund protects your money and investment from the big silent monster of inflation. As far as tax is concerned, balance fund is treated as an “equity fund” and hence on one hand its dividends are tax free while on the other hand it is outside the purview of long term capital gains tax. The beauty of it is that even the “debt portion” of it becomes tax free as equity which never ever happens in any other case. It also shields you from the third robber, namely interest rates as the equity component in the balance fund protects your money and investment from the dangerous monster of interest rates. Further, a balance fund invests in both equity and debt and hence takes care of market volatility via playing the “Investment Cycle”. Lastly but most importantly, a balance fund allocates between equity and debt and hence providing the investor with automatic asset allocation - it almost automatically buys the cheaper asset and sells the costlier one when one asset class out-performs the other so as to bring the fund back to the optimal asset allocation. Therefore, it automatically by definition follows the most important principal of investment – Buy Cheap and Sell Dear. The name of the fund is balance but it is the most imbalance of all the funds as it takes the credit of protecting and shielding your money of all the five major investment robbers.

Commandment 7: Thou shall not ignore Index Funds
This is another very common mistake which MF investors commit – ignoring a simple low cost index fund in favour of the high cost actively managed fund. You will get these kind of advice most of the time from majority of the people that equity investments are for the experts and if you don’t know how to pick your stocks then you should entrust your money to the expert fund manager etc. However, I dare to say that these are probably one of the most useless advice which you can ever receive. Hold on, I am not saying that you don’t entrust your money to the experts and start picking your own stocks – no their may not be a bigger financial suicide than this. I just humbly submit that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to beat the stock market indices consistently over a longer period of time. If that were not the case, then why over a period of a decade or more, approximately 75% of all “actively” managed stock funds underperform the passively constructed stock indices. The fact of the matter is that most people have no reason whatsoever to believe that they can pick winning stocks or time the markets and their success at it would be the same as it would be like throwing darts at the financial pages. I would like to quote Dr. William Bernstein who told that “there are two kinds of investors, be they large or small: those who don’t know where the market is headed, and those who don’t know that they don’t know where the market is headed. Then again, there is a third type of investor – the investment professional, who indeed knows that he or she doesn’t know, but whose livelihood depends upon appearing to know where the market is headed”. Nothing more succinctly explains the real world of professional investing and stock picking. Mr. Merton Miller, Nobel laureate and professor of Economics of Chicago commented that “if there are 10000 people looking at the stocks and trying to pick winners, one in 10000 is going to score, by chance alone, a great coup, and that’s all that’s going on. It’s a game, it’s a chance operation, and people think they are doing something purposeful, but they’re really not”. Then I would quote Mr. Rex Sinquefield, co-author of Stocks, bonds, ills and inflation that “we all know that active management fees are high. Poor performance does not come cheap. You have to pay dearly for it”. Thus, active fund management is nothing but paying heavy fees for underperforming the passive indices! Then for the investors who are always on the look out for the next hot fund, the next great sector fund or so, Bethany McLean, columnist for Fortune magazine wrote “skepticism about past returns is crucial, the truth is, much as you may wish you could know which funds will be hot, you can’t and neither can the legions of advisors and publications that claim they can. That’s why building a portfolio around index funds isn’t really settling for the average. It’s just refusing to believe in magic”. And let me further quote Mr. Jon Bogle, founder and retired CEO of the Vanguard group “Index funds eliminate the risks of individual stocks, market sectors, and manger selection. Only stock market risks remain”. In other words, when you invest in a passively managed index fund than all the risk relating to the fund manager, his / her stock selection and market timing, individual sectors etc all go and the only risk which remains is the risk of the whole stock market and that is precisely the risk which would like to expose yourself to when you invest in equities. Mr. Nicholas Taleb has written an excellent book titled “Fooled by randomness” wherein he explains the role of chance in life and in the markets and I will recommend that book to anyone who believes that he / she can consistently pick winning stocks and / or time the markets to perfection. Last but not the least I would like to jot the words of the great legendary investor Mr. Warren Buffet who once said that “most investors, both institutional and individual, will find the best way to own common stocks is through an index fund that charges minimal fees. Those following this path are sure to beat the net results (after fees and expenses) delivered by the great majority of investment professionals”.

Commandment 8: Thou shall understanding the fund in which you invest
The primary purpose of MFs is to make your life simpler by investing your money on your behalf. However, actually they have made your life difficult by making available a plethora of different categories and schemes. Hence, before biting the bullet get acquainted with which category of fund you are investing in – Equity, Fixed Income, Balanced, Commodity and within them the various sub-sets like sector, theme, gilt, income, short-term, liquid etc. in which you are investing. The risk, expected return, income tax, expenses, required time horizon are immensely different in each of those categories. So don’t commit the unpardonable mistake of investing your money in a fund without actually knowing where and in which asset class it is going to deploy your money.

Commandment 9: Thou shall not believe that MF is the only way of investing
You would be advised by all MF managers, distributors, sales persons and media that MF is perhaps the best and most superior way of investing in the markets. No doubt, MF is surely an attractive platform for investing in the markets particularly when it allows you to invest in certain instruments or under certain conditions which you otherwise cannot do as an individual like buy Government securities or getting complete diversification by investing a very small sum etc. However, there is no reason to believe that a MF manager would do a better job then you – infact if you gain some financial knowledge and then practically apply your knowledge around your own niche area there is every likelihood that you might do better than the average fund manager. This is what the ace fund manager Peter Lynch beautifully brought out in his bestselling book “One up on Wall Street”. So, do invest in MFs as it offers superior risk-return parameters but don’t make the mistake of believing that MF is the only way of investing in the markets.

Commandment 10: Thou shall not forget your MF investments
The title of this commandment might seem paradoxical but it is true. Most of the investors just invest and forget about it. They think that their job is done by just investing little realizing that infact their job has just begun. You need to periodically review and monitor your MF portfolio. Kindly note, I am not suggesting you to monitor the daily NAV – that would be disastrous and against the principle of Commandment 5. What I am suggesting here is that you should periodically review the MF schemes so as to ensure that the fund has adhered to its original investment premise, whether your decision to invest in a particular scheme was correct, whether that particular scheme still fits into your overall asset allocation goals etc. You may take corrective actions, if need be.

Every unsuccessful investment by an investor profits somebody else like the company promoter, mutual fund house, broker, investment advisor, mutual fund distributor, financial planner, fund & credit rating agencies etc. Therefore, stop making others rich with you hard earned money. To conclude, there are many simple and avoidable mistakes which investors mutually commit while investing in mutual funds. Kindly note, that simple logical things work far better in the market place rather than complex algorithms, theorems, valuations principles, DCF etc. And there is no other place to test your virtues than the market – be it common sense, logical thinking, patience, perseverance, mental balance, emotional intelligence, performing under stress etc. All the qualities which make a successful human being will be tested by the market –it has its own method of finding and exploiting human weaknesses. Investing is not about beating the market or anybody else, its simply beating your own self, your own negative traits and once you are able to master your own self and become a complete human being, then only you would also become a successful investor. Articulate your investment goals, know your time horizon, recognize your risk appetite, understand your need for income and growth, invest regularly although it may be in small lots, do your thinking and research and after doing it don’t panic just because the market went against you, accept your mistakes and flaws and follow the 10 Commandments for mutual fund investing so as to embark on becoming a successful Mutual Fund investor and a complete human being.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Rules for Selecting the Right Fund

Today choice is a problem. Whether the exercise is one of spending or of investing, wherever we go, there is a plethora of choices. Especially in the case of mutual funds-the array is mind boggling – so how does a common investor go about selecting the right mutual fund. This article attempts to solve your problem of plenty as far as mutual fund investments are concerned by introducing you to the “rules of selecting the perfect fund”. Yes, my friend, mutual funds have has its own rules which no textbook or formal education will teach you but you have to learn the rules otherwise your dream of becoming successful mutual fund investor would be greatly impaired.

Rule 1: Select Funds with Low Expense Ratios
Costs matter - and their impact is likely to grow in importance in the years ahead. It is costs, pure and simple, that have accounted for—and will continue to account for—the lion's share of the shortfall of the typical mutual funds in the stock market. Remember, these costs are borne out of the returns and to that extent, take a portion out of them. So it is obvious that in times of low returns these costs will chew up a higher part of the market return which ought to be available for you. As these costs are raked from the table of the market casino, the croupiers with the largest rakes are the fund managers. The fees and expenses you pay to them are rising even faster than the industry's soaring asset base. But, yes, larger fund groups have lower costs. Thus you owe it to yourself to select from among funds where the manager-croupiers exercise at least some restraint, evidenced by expense ratios that are well below industry norms.

Rule 2: Emphasize Funds with Low Portfolio Turnover
Once your money is invested in a fund, most funds continue to buy and then sell securities unremittingly, and then sell them and buy them over and over again. The shorter the holding period of a stock the more akin to short-term speculation than to long-term investing, is the philosophy. It’s such an irony of faith that the mutual fund managers and distributors advocate “long term investing” through their funds while their funds themselves are slaves to short term trading strategies. So who pays for these transactional costs of churning the portfolio-you of course-from your returns. This high turnover is in part the product of trading by hyperactive portfolio managers, anxious to garner a performance edge on their peers, however fruitless the quest. But there is also turnover among the managers themselves. All too often when a manager departs, the new manager's broom sweeps clean, as he reorders the portfolio to comport with his own strategies. So, be aware, not only of a fund's turnover rate, but also both its management and company's propensity to move managers around, sometimes seemingly at the drop of a hat. Turnover costs can cut your long-term returns by a meaningful amount, so do your best to find funds both with portfolio holdings and portfolio managers that will stay the course.

Rule 3: Realize That commissions are Fund Costs Too
As impatient, aggressive fund managers buy and sell stocks at a furious rate, they pay virtually no attention whatsoever to the brokerage and commissions such activity will require you to pay. So look for efficient funds—not only those that have been so in the past, but those that have policies that emphasize on-going efficiency with minimum commissions and brokerages.

Rule 4: Be Careful About What You Pay for Fund Selection Advice
Many investors need sensible advice in fund selection and asset allocation—and many do not. If you are convinced you do not need advice, it is unwise to pay for it, either in the form of front-end sales commissions or fees paid to registered investment advisers and financial planners, usually beginning at about 1% of assets and paid directly by the investor. The best advisers help you minimize the costs of the croupiers in the stock market casino by steering you toward funds with low expenses, low turnover, and high tax-efficiency. Equally important, they can also help you to minimize the many pitfalls of fund selection, provide you with sound asset allocation guidance, and give you personal attention. If you are among the many investors who need this sort of advice, get it. But be sure to carefully select your adviser and know exactly the fees involved.

Rule 5: Beware of Past Performance to Predict Future Performance
For your dream of a perfect plan to be realized, you must select superior mutual funds. To an amazing extent, investors rely on past performance to make their selections. However there is simply no way of predicting a fund's future success based on its past track record. Indeed, the one thing that appears certain about the future relative performance of successful funds is this - performance superiority will not be sustained. This pattern is called "Reversion to the Mean," a sort of law of gravity that seems to be almost universally applicable in the financial markets. It is not a statistical aberration. Reversion to the mean or the law of averages, then, seems almost preordained in fund performance, frustrating the dreams of so many investors who invest on the basis of past returns. Finally, index funds alone have relative predictability. They provide precisely the market's return, less their costs, decade after decade after decade.

Rule 6: Rely on Past Performance to Measure Consistency and Risk
While the dream of the perfect investment plan will rarely be fully realized, there are ways to avoid having it become a living nightmare. If past fund performance cannot foretell the future, it can still be an important consideration in selecting funds that have a fighting chance to earn consistent returns relative to peer funds with similar styles and objectives. Compare, for example, a large-cap blend (growth and value) fund with other large-cap blend funds, and see how it stands each year. The "good" fund is in the top half in seven years, in the bottom quartile but once. The "bad" fund is in the top half five times, but in the bottom quartile, four. It is consistency of return, not aggregate return, that tells the important story to the intelligent investor. So, careful analysis of past performance can tell us a lot about return. But it can also tell us a lot about risk. Risk is a crucial element in investing. Generally speaking, value funds carry distinctly less risk than growth funds, and large-cap funds carry less risk than small-cap funds. For example, small-cap growth funds carry 65% higher risk than large-cap value funds. The character, integrity, stability, and judgment of a fund's management are the qualities on which your dream of the perfect plan should rely. In all of your searching for the quantities that describe investment returns, so don’t ignore the qualities of those who will be the stewards of your precious assets.

Rule 7: Consider the Implications of Asset Size
Any investor seeking the perfect plan must be aware of asset size and its implications for the future returns of the funds selected. By far, the biggest problem is that investors seeking extraordinary future returns focus on extraordinary past returns, frequently accomplished when a fund was small. Such returns are simply not repeatable; indeed they may not even be honest. Size, as such, is not necessarily bad. A giant market index fund, indeed, may have inherent advantages over a very small one. And the past record of a fund investing in large-cap stocks on a long-term basis is likely relevant even if the fund has grown to a large size. But giant size limits the investment universe from which a manager must select the fund's investments, as well as limiting (for better or worse) his ability to actively trade the fund's holdings. As a result, funds that were once actively managed gradually come to resemble market index funds, without disclosing it, and without the benefit of low cost that indexing provides.

Rule 8: Don't Own Too Many Funds—And Don't Trade Them
Last but not the least - limit the number of funds you own, and don't trade them. To paraphrase the old adage, "too many funds spoil the perfect plan." Why should this be so? First, the more funds you own, the greater the chance that a truly inspired fund selection will have its success spoiled by another fund that falls on its face. The problem has been called "diworsesification," for it leads investors to build a portfolio of funds containing so many individual stocks that it becomes contradictory for the holder. Even more counterproductive is the active trading of mutual funds. Typically, an investor today holds funds for but three years, an absurdly inadequate time frame for appraising the results of an investment program that should be inherently long term by nature. What is worse is that the funds may have been ill-selected in the first instance—funds with inflated performance, funds investing in hot market sectors, funds advertised on television, funds that trade actively and relinquish much of their profit to taxes, funds with high costs that didn't seem to matter when their past records looked so good. But the worst aspect of trading funds is that it allows the counterproductive emotions of investing to supersede the productive economics of investing. The dream of a perfect plan will never come true if mutual funds are traded as if they were stocks.

To conclude, there are many simple and avoidable mistakes which investors commit while investing in mutual funds, particularly at the time of the selection of funds. Don’t let the “problem of plenty” lead you to make inappropriate decisions. Kindly note, that simple logical things work far better in the market place rather than complex algorithms, theorems, formulas, risk measurement principles, fund performance criteria etc. And there is no other place to test your virtues than investments – be it common sense, logical thinking, patience, perseverance, mental balance, emotional intelligence, performing under stress etc. Investing is not about beating the market or anybody else, its simply beating your own self, your own negative traits and once you are able to master your own self and become a complete human being, then only you would also become a successful mutual fund investor. Articulate your investment goals, know your time horizon, recognize your risk appetite, understand your need for income and growth, invest regularly although it may be in small lots, do your thinking and research and after doing it don’t panic just because the market went against you, accept your mistakes and flaws and follow the above mentioned rules to select the right fund for you – remember money is made at the time of investment, it is only realized at the point of sale.