Many investment styles – along the continuum of growth and value – go in and out of favour periodically. Success of one style sows the seeds of its own failure. When many investors adopt that style, the price rises way beyond most optimistic estimate of value.

One such style that has done well in recent years has been QAAP – Quality at any price or GAAP – Growth at any price. Rising flows and sombre economic outlook has led money to be hidden into few proven names that are perceived to have moats, growth, high returns on capital, charismatic management, and long run way.

Sure, there are a minority of companies that deserve paying up. We too have paid and remain ready to pay up for such exceptional businesses. But the base rate (past experience) of high earnings growth (30% or higher) for long period is very small.

Of 1326 listed Indian companies that existed and were profitable 20 years ago in the year 1999, two-third of the companies grew their earnings at less than 15% CAGR (cumulative annual growth rate) over next 20 years. And only 6% of companies grew their operating earnings at over 20% CAGR in the same period. Moreover, companies that grew over 20% CAGR in initial years saw their operating earnings growth falling to an average 10%. (Source: Capitaline)

Despite this high bar, and despite their earnings growth slowing down in recent 6 months, over 20% of NSE 500 companies today trade at P/E greater than 40x. Often markets get into growth narrative and recent tailwinds are misconstrued as moats.  Stocks start trading at astronomic valuations assuming that high growth rates will continue. Long term earnings data gives clear evidence that such expectations exceed reality. Unbridled quest for QAAP/ GAAP may be a TRAP.

Note: This piece was part of one of our half yearly letters sent to our investors.

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Behaviour As An Edge

“What’s not going to change in next 10 years?”

-Jeff Bezos

Internet, securities regulations and entry of talented individuals have blunted the erstwhile investment edge offered by better information and better analyses. Rational behaviour – buying below intrinsic value and selling above it irrespective of short term noise – still remains a sustainable source of investment edge. That’s because institutional compulsions and human emotions & biases force participants to eschew this rationality and create mispricing. These two factors will not materially change in next 10 years.

Institutional Compulsion: Investment behaviour of fund managers at investment institutions is driven by minimising career risk. Their jobs, promotions and bonuses depend on increasing the assets under management (AUM) which in turn depends on matching or beating their benchmarks net of fees on quarterly basis. Often unconventional and/ or concentrated stock picks cannot offer this guarantee. Therefore most of them construct ‘index aware’ portfolios – euphemism for mimicking benchmark indices. Many companies that are out of index donot find buyers and remain mispriced. Rising interest in Index Funds/ETFs (passive funds that mimic benchmarks fully without any human discretion) will further aggravate this anomaly. Further, redemptions or regulations force fund managers to sell stocks irrespective of value. Recent SEBI reclassification drove lot of money out of mid and small caps to large caps irrespective of fundamental merit.

Human emotions & biases: While good for hunting, gathering and surviving, evolution has ill prepared us to do well in investing. Fear and greed were mental shortcuts that helped our hunter forefathers survive. They ran when there were rustlings in the bushes (fear). And, they overate/ stored whenever food was in excess (greed). These genes are passed on to us as their legacy. Price fall triggers the same fear. Risk aversion rises and future projections get grim. No price is too low. Conversely price rise engenders same greed. Risk taking rises and future projections get rosy. No price is too high. Behavioural Finance has demonstrated that we are not perfectly rational. We are susceptible to heuristics and cognitive biases.

Behaviour Edge: Knowing above, following offers a sustainable investment edge:

  1. Operating only in businesses that one honestly understands and having a sense of their intrinsic values.
  2. Remaining humbly aware of multiple possibilities including our own folly and therefore buying with a margin of safety.
  3. Understanding that (a) intrinsic values are less volatile than price, and (b) emotions revert to mean.
  4. Raising money and/ or investing only when prices make sense (is harder than seems) and willingness to hold cash when opportunities are thin. Our ‘zero fee and profit share only’ structure supports this behaviour.
  5. Looking for opportunities in spaces where price discovery is still inefficient.

Rational Money: A fund’s behaviour is derived from its investors’ behaviour. We may, thanks to above reasons, find bargain securities and buy. Prices however may continue to fall even after that despite fundamentals remaining intact. Interim NAV performance may look poor. If investors panic and withdraw on those times, the paper loss will be converted to actual loss and all our behavioural astuteness (1-5 above) will amount to nothing. A fund manager can be only as rational as the money she manages.

Note: This piece was part of one of our half yearly letters sent to our investors.

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