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How to Survive the Next Stock Market Crisis

Note: I am not predicting a stock market crisis in the near term. But what follows below is a discussion on how an investor can survive a crisis that will certainly happen at some time in the future. That’s the nature of financial markets, you see.



“Hey Vishal, how are you doing today?” asked my friend Ravi as we met for lunch last weekend.

“I’m good, Ravi. How have you been?”

“Super, and more excited than ever!” he replied.

“Glad to know that,” I said. “You got a promotion at the job?”

“No, I’m excited for another reason.”

“Bull market?” I asked, almost knowing what was coming next.

“Yeah, yeah, you guessed it right this time!” Ravi exclaimed. His joy seemed to know no bounds.

“I just sold a five-bagger from my portfolio,” he said with great pride, “And three more stocks are almost hitting that level.”

“Great to know that Ravi. The last time I saw you this happy was in 2007.”

“Oh, don’t be a sadist Vishal,” Ravi said. “Don’t remind me of what happened then.”

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Reasonable Expectations

“You’ve got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going, ’cause you might not get there.” ~ Yogi Berra

At the heart of Ben Graham’s teachings lies his advice that the intelligent investor must never forecast the future exclusively by extrapolating the past.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly the mistake that stock market experts and investors have made innumerable times in the past. Some go even further. Since stocks had “always” beaten bonds over any period of at least 30 years, stocks must be less risky than bonds or even cash in the bank. And if you can eliminate all the risk of owning stocks simply by hanging on to them long enough, then why quibble over how much you pay for them in the first place?

In India, it’s easy to find a forecaster who argues that stocks have returned an annual average of around 18% over the past 30 years and thus that’s what investors can easily expect in the future. But what if I tell you that the average annual return for the BSE-Sensex has been just around 10% over the past 25 years (since the peak of Harshad Mehta bull run)?

Of course, this is just one number and you may accuse me of being selective in my choice to prove a point. But that’s what I am up to – prove a point, that when you do not pay heed to the price you are paying for stocks because you have unreasonable expectations for the future, you are bound to get disappointed.

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The Curse of a Bull Market

“Vishal, since the market is up so much over the past 3-4 years, and especially after the surge over the last few months, I’m looking for cheap stocks and sectors that have been left behind, even if they are average businesses,” a value investor friend Ravi told me this as we met for lunch last weekend.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it’s almost impossible to find value among good quality companies…your so-called moat businesses. And I am a true blue ‘value’ investor you see.”

“Oh no,” I told Ravi. “That is a dangerous thing to do.”

I understood what Ravi was hoping to do. It also sounded logical i.e., to identify and buy stocks that remain cheap in a market where most businesses are quoting at high valuations.

But sensible investing doesn’t work that way.

“There is a big difference between ‘cheapness’ and ‘value’, Ravi.”

“Why do you say that, Vishal?”

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Why Not to Speculate During Bull Markets: Lessons from Newton and Druckenmiller

It was sometime during late 1999 through early 2000, near the peak of the dot-com bubble, the legendary George Soros and his hedge-fund team were working on how to prepare for the inevitable sell-off in technology stocks.

The man in charge of Soros’ high profile technology funds was Stanley Druckenmiller – one of the best-performing hedge fund managers of all time, till date – and he was busy warning his team that the sell-off could be near and could be brutal.

As the markets soared further in March 2000, Druckenmiller was quoted as saying, “I don’t like this market. I think we should probably lighten up.” Soros himself would regularly warn his team that tech stocks were a bubble set to burst.

Despite this, when the sell-off finally did begin in mid-March 2000, Soros Fund Management wasn’t ready for it. His funds were still loaded with high-tech and biotech stocks. Just in five days, starting 15th March, Soros’s flagship Quantum Fund saw what had been a 2% year-to-date gain turn into an 11% loss. By the end of April, the Quantum Fund was down 22% since the start of the year, and the smaller Quota Fund was down 32%.

Post that, in April 2000, Soros said at a conference, “Maybe I don’t understand the market. Maybe the music has stopped, but people are still dancing.”

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Oh, My Impatient Generation!

I met a guy yesterday who spent the past ten years of his life – and he’s just 32 years of age – destroying his body with alcohol, excessive food, and a sedentary lifestyle.

“I have resolved to be fit, lean and healthy in the next six months,” he told me with great confidence.

Well, not surprisingly, he got irritated when I told him that it might take a little longer than six months to achieve what he wanted.

His reaction wasn’t much different from a cousin of mine, who recently told me how she wanted to become a life coach and was ready to do whatever it took to get there in one year.

When I asked her, “What if it takes you ten years to get there, instead of one?” she had no answer.

Clearly, she hadn’t considered the possibility that years of learning, experience and skill development could be one of the necessary success ingredients in becoming a good life guru. But she wanted the results without all this work…or by investing the necessary time.

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Beware the Boredom of Bull Market

At my Hyderabad Value Investing workshop that I conducted last Sunday, I had a participant who asked – “What you’ve said about long term investing in the stock market is all good. But doesn’t it get boring after a time? I mean, first the process of reading annual reports to find good businesses, and then if you find some, holding on to them for the long run doing nothing. How does one maintain interest in this thing? How does one make this process and journey exciting?”

I thought these were good questions. In fact, questions like these used to bother me when I started out on my journey of reading annual reports, analyzing financial statements, and practicing long term investing more than a decade back.

In fact, I met an accomplished investor friend at a conference recently, who confessed of boredom because he was not able to find stocks worth buying in this rising market. “Even if you are a long-term investor, what do you do but feel bored when you don’t find anything worth buying because everything seems to be so inflated?” he questioned.

“I agree,” I said.

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Notes from Howard Marks’ Lecture: 48 Most Important Things I Learned on Investing

“If you were to read just five books in your life to become a sensible investor,” I often suggest people seeking my view, “…they have to be Warren Buffett’s letters, Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Peter Lynch’s One Up on Wall Street, Ben Graham’s The Intelligent Investor, and Howard Marks’ memos.”

Well, if you don’t know who Howard Marks is, let me tell you he is the CEO of Oaktree Capital and is one of the most famous investors who manages to keep a low profile, despite managing almost US$ 100 billion. Marks is also the author of an amazing book – The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor. In its ultimate praise, Warren Buffett writes, “This is that rarity, a useful book”.

Howard Marks - Oaktree Capital

I have been reading and re-reading Marks’ memos for a few years now, so was very fortunate to attend a lecture he gave in Mumbai yesterday titled – The Truth About Investing.

It was an enlightening session, just to be in the presence of this legend and hear him out live.

I made some notes from Marks’ lecture, which I present below (most of these are direct quotes from Marks). He calls these lessons as the “brutal truths” of investing. As you would realize while reading the notes, these indeed are brutal truths – stuff that is easier said than done.

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Investing is Simple, but Not Easy

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” ~ Confucius

“Simplicity is a great virtue but it requires hard work to achieve it and education to appreciate it. And to make matters worse: complexity sells better.” ~ Edsger W. Dijkstra

It’s a sad fact of life that great people rarely divulge deep insights into how they achieved their greatness. And the sadder fact of life is that when a few of the greats do divulge the secrets of their greatness, we ignore them because the secrets often are too simple, too pedestrian, for us to appreciate.

“Huh! That’s it? It can’t be so simple!” we would say when we hear a great shelling out simple advice to achieve greatness.

Like, if you are learning martial arts and you hear Bruce Lee speak out the secret to his greatness – “Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own” – you say, “Great thought, but is that it? It cannot be so simple!”

Consider investing. When we read Warren Buffett revealing that the only two rules of successful investing are – Rule No. 1: Never Lose Money. Rule No. 2: Never Forget Rule No. 1 – our brain protests, “Great thought, but is that it? It cannot be so simple!”

Investing is simple, like Buffett also says, but not easy. Take a simple idea, Charlie Munger suggests, but take it seriously.

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