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Archives for April 2016

Latticework of Mental Models: The Two Systems of Thinking

“What’s 2 + 2?”

You can’t help but think of the answer instantly. Your mind throws the number “4” on your thought screen. It’s actually impossible to not think of the answer here, unless you haven’t learnt to count to ten.

The answer is almost like a reflex. It was an instance of fast thinking. In fact, you don’t even need to consciously think about it. It just happens to you. This is the result of what scientists call reflexive brain.

Now if I ask you, “What’s 38 multiplied by 27?”

For most of you, except if you’re a math wizard, your brain goes blank. It doesn’t give you any instant answer. You’ll have to take a pause and calculate the answer with some efforts, and if you’re like me you won’t be able to do it without pen and paper. Here you have to involve a part of your brain which is known as the reflective brain. You experience a slow mode of thinking as you proceed through a sequence of steps to solve this multiplication problem.

Reflexive brain is quick and it tends to jump to conclusion. Reflective brain is much slower, requires effort, it’s logical and, as we’ll see later, less prone to error.

Daniel Kahneman, a nobel laureate who is also known as the founding father of modern behavioural economics, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, has termed these two modes of thinking as System 1 (reflexive) and System 2 (reflective).

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The Dangers of Persistence

A few months back, during my lecture to a class of MBA students, I asked them to finish a sentence. The sentence was – “If you play a slot machine in a casino long enough, eventually you will ………” *

The class yelled out in unison “WIN!”

As most people reading this know, that is exactly the wrong answer. Slot machines are engineered to make everyone but the casino a loser in the long run. But MBA kids don’t know that, and they are never taught that. I assumed they confused the benefits of persistence with the actual odds of succeeding.

Anyways, I met a couple of my neighbours in the gym today, who smiled – as if mocking me – when I told them about my work that is to teach people to make lesser mistakes with their money and also learn to make sensible investment decisions for the long term.

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The Most Important Question We Never Ask

A few years ago, the key executives of Disney summoned a study of their theme parks to figure out what kids found most absorbing. Were they more enticed by Mickey and Minnie Mouse, or were they more in awe of Cinderella’s castle? Were they attracted more by the sweet-smelling snacks or colourful toys that were sold at the parks?

The study revealed that it wasn’t the Disney magic that captured the young children’s attention the most. Instead it was their parents’ cell phones, especially when the parents were using them. And because the parents were always staring at their phones, the kids wanted to as well – even when they were surrounded by giant mice, spinning teacups, and the magic of pumpkin turning into a carriage.

Today, more of us are hooked to our devices, which in turn keep us hooked to work…and away from the more important things in life. An average American spends over two hours on his or her smartphone every day. An average Indian smartphone user spends almost three hours every day on his or her device. We check them first thing in the morning, and often last thing at night.

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Latticework of Mental Models: Active Reading

The summer season is here and irrespective of the fluctuations in the market temperature, the real mercury is rising everyday. In this sweltering heat, one of the things that brings an instant smile on my face is when I think about how I spent my summer holidays when I was a kid.

This thought sends me down the memory lanes of all those good old days when I played with friends all day, watched favourite cartoon programs on TV, and forgot all about school and homework.

My summer holidays were jam packed with activities like playing carrom, card games, checkers, chess, monopoly, cricket, and most of all – reading comics. I loved reading comic books. By the time I reached 8th standard, I had amassed a collection of more than 300 comic books. I even ran a small library which unfortunately had to be closed down after 10 days of operation.

The lesson learnt – kids like borrowing comics but don’t like returning them. 🙂

Anyways, when I look back at my childhood days, I realize that reading comics was one of the most pleasurable activity. I am sure many of you can relate to me.

When I entered college, those 30 page comic books were replaced by 500 page novels. But one thing remained unchanged about my reading habit. Most of my reading was for pleasure. Except of course college text books which I passionately disliked. For that matter, whenever I read anything which had a potential to challenge my cognitive resources, I forgot most of it by next evening. That explains my belief about studying for exams just a day before.

However, as I started working, my interest increased in the area of personal development, investing and personal finance, I found myself picking business and investing related books every now and then. But my years of poor reading habits – reading only for pleasure – had become a serious roadblock to derive any meaningful benefit out of these new kind of books.

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Why You Must Not Quit Your Job to Become a Full-Time Investor

Short view – It could get lonely and frustrating, plus dangerous for your sanity and financial well-being.

Long view – First, a clarification. I am not a full-time investor i.e., me and my family are not dependent for our living on the stock market. I earn my living by teaching people how to invest sensibly in stocks. And I invest a large portion of my savings in stocks. But I won’t have sleepless nights if the stock market were to tank tomorrow and remain down for the next year or two, because that is not what earns me my oats and sprouts (I don’t eat “bread and butter” you see).

Anyways, the reason I am writing this post is because a lot of tribe members have asked me over the years – and especially recently through my Ask Vishal initiative – about how they could quit their jobs to become full-time investors in the stock market.

In most of my replies, I have asked people to avoid quitting their jobs to become full-time investors, and here are five reasons I have often mentioned to support my reasoning. In case you have had this question but were afraid to ask, I hope what follows below helps you take a decision.

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Latticework of Mental Models: Checklist

Few months back, I was visiting a friend in the hospital. He was getting discharged after a minor surgery. While helping him pack his stuff I casually flipped through his discharge summary papers. Most of the medical jargon in the file didn’t make much sense to me but one particular thing caught my attention.

Under details of surgery, the last line read – “Mops/instrument counts were correct”. The first thought that came to mind was – are these guys so concerned about their instruments (and even cotton mops) that they count it after the operation? Many of those instruments are anyway disposable and can’t be used again. So what’s the big deal about counting them?

Later I came to know that counting all the instruments and mops is part of their protocol. It’s to make sure that they haven’t left any items inside the body of the person being operated. It was an important step in their written ‘list of things to check’. Made sense.

Hundred of people die every day because of unavoidable blunders (like leaving an instrument inside the patient’s body) by surgeons.

In US alone the number of deaths following surgery is 75,000 per year which is more than the number of road accident fatalities. And these are the cases which are avoidable because they emanate from human errors. The failure rate is disproportionately high and can’t be ignored.

But medicine has become a field of extreme complexity. And not just medicine but many other fields have grown so far beyond the usual kind that avoiding daily mistakes is proving impossible even for our most super-specialized.

So how do you approach this problem? This is the question that intrigued Dr. Atul Gawande, professor of medical surgery in Harvard Medical School, and his quest to find the solution ended at a totally unrelated place. The aviation industry.

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Ask Vishal

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

If there is one big lesson I have learned in my life on how to get better at something (anything), it is that of asking questions…and a lot of them.

Now, asking questions does not come naturally to me. All my school and college life, I rarely asked questions for the fear of looking like a fool for the next five minutes.

But I have learned it the hard way – through failures, missed opportunities, and (almost) a broken heart – that he who asks a question is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.

Anyways, now my life revolves around answering questions – and a lot of them that come in daily from Safal Niveshak tribe members. Questions related to investing, personal finance, career, and life.

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Latticework of Mental Models: Arbitrage

In 1954, a temporary shortage of cocoa in US caused its price to increase from 5 cents to 60 cents per pound, a whopping 12 times.

As a result, Rockwood & Co., a brooklyn based chocolate products company, found itself in a sweet spot. They were sitting on 13 million pounds of excess inventory of cocoa which instantaneously became a huge asset because of cocoa price increase.

So selling the inventory to make a handsome profit was a no-brainer except that there was just one catch to it. Rockwood & Co. followed LIFO (last in first out) inventory valuation which would have created a 50% tax liability on profits from sale of inventory.

Young Warren Buffett

Buffett in his early 20s

So to avoid this tax, they came up with an ingenious way to exploit the temporary opportunity. They extended a share buyback offer which allowed the shareholder to tender a share in exchange for 80 pounds of cocoa. This maneuver, according to 1954 tax code, was perfectly legal and didn’t invite heavy tax liability.

This caught the attention of a 24 year old investment analyst who was working in New York for Graham Newman Corp. It was obvious to him that one could buy Rockwood shares for $34, sell them back to the company for 80 pounds of cocoa beans (worth $36), and then sell the cocoa beans making an instant profit of $2. Considering the transaction could be done in less than a week, it worked out to a sky-high annualized return.

“For several weeks I busily bought share, sold beans, and made periodic stops at Schroeder Trust to exchange stock certificates for warehouse receipts.”, recounts Warren Buffett, the protagonist in the story above, “The profits were good and my only expense was subway tickets.”

What Buffett did is called an Arbitrage. It’s a process of identifying market inefficiencies. The classic idea is that of buying an item in one place and selling it in another. In the very early days the word applied only to the simultaneous purchase and sale of securities or foreign exchange in two different markets.

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