The stock market 'meltdown' witnessed since the start of 2005 (notwithstanding the recent marginal recovery) has once again brought to the forefront an inherent weakness existent in our markets. This is the fact that FIIs, indisputably and almost entirely, dominate the Indian stock market sentiments and consequently the market movements. In this article, we make an attempt to list down a few points that would aid an investor in mitigating the risks and curtailing the losses during times of volatility as large investors (read FIIs) enter and exit stocks.
Considering the Indian stock market behaviour over the previous fortnight, it would not be entirely inappropriate to state that the 600+ points (9%) correction witnessed in 10 trading sessions was almost as bad (if not worse) as the single-day near 800-points (16%) crash (!) seen on May 17, 2004. This is because, in either scenario, it is primarily the retail/small investor community, which gets affected the worst as they are generally among the late entrants to a bullrun (i.e. near the peak) and amongst the last to exit in a correction. However, some amount of stock market prudence and a disciplined approach could go a long-way in protecting one's capital. Listed below are a few points.
Manage greed/fear: This is an important point, which every investor must keep in mind owing to its great influencing ability in equity investment decisions. This point simply means that in a bull run - control the greed factor, which could entice you, the investor, to compromise with your investment principles. By this we mean that while an investor could get lured into investing in penny and small-cap stocks owing to their eye-popping returns, it must be noted that these stocks have the potential to wipe out almost the entire invested capital. Another way greed affects investor behaviour is when they buy/hold stocks above the price justified by its fundamentals. Similarly, in a vice-versa scenario (bear market), investors must control their fear when stock markets turn unfavourable and stock prices collapse. Panic selling would serve no purpose and if the company has strong fundamentals, the stock is more than likely to bounce back.
It is apt to note here what Warren Buffet, the legendary investor, had to say when he was asked about his abstinence from the software sector during the tech boom, "It means we miss a lot of very big winners but it also means we have very few big losers.... We're perfectly willing to trade away a big payoff for a certain payoff".
Avoid trading/timing the market: This is one factor, which many experts/investors claim to have understood but are more often wrong than right. We believe that it is rather impossible to time the market on a day-to-day basis and by adopting such an approach, an investor would most probably be at the losers' end at the end of the day. In fact, investors should take advantage of the huge volatility that is witnessed in the markets time and again. In Benjamin Graham's (pioneer of value investing and the person who influenced Warren Buffet) words, "Basically, price fluctuations have only one significant meaning for the 'true' investor. They provide him an opportunity to buy wisely when prices fall sharply and to sell wisely when they advance a great deal. At other times, he will do better if he forgets about the stock market".
Avoid actions based on rumours/sentiments: Rumours are a part and parcel of stock markets, which do influence investor sentiments to some extent. However, investing on the basis of this could prove to be detrimental to an investors' portfolio, as these largely originate from sources with vested interests, which more often than not, turn out to be false. This then leads to carnage in the related stock(s) leaving retail investors in the lurch. However, if we consider this from another point of view, when sentiments turn sour but fundamentals remain intact, investors could take the opportunity to build a fundamentally strong portfolio. This scenario is aptly described by Warren Buffet, "Be fearful when others are greedy and be greedy when others are fearful".
Avoid emotional attachment/averaging: It is very much possible that the company you have invested in fails to perform as per your expectations. This consequently gets reflected on the stock price. However, in such a scenario, it would not be wise to continue to hold onto the stock/buy more at lower levels on the back of expectations that the company's performance may improve for the better and the stock would provide an opportunity to exit at higher levels. Here it is advisable to switch to some other stock, which has promising prospects. In Warren Buffet's words, "Should you find yourself in a chronically-leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks".
Avoid over-leveraging: This behaviour is typical in times of a bullrun when investors invest more than what they can manage with the hope of making smart returns on the borrowed money. Though this move may sound intelligent, it is smart only till the time markets display a unidirectional move (i.e. northwards). However, things take a scary turn when the markets reverse direction or move sideways for a long time. This is because it leads to additional margin calls by the lender, which might force the investor to book losses in order to meet the margin requirements. In a graver situation, a stock market fall could severely distort the asset allocation scenario of the investor putting his other finances at risk.
Keep Margin of Safety: In Benjamin Graham's words, "For ordinary stocks, the margin of safety lies in an expected 'earning power' considerably above the interest rates on debt instruments". However, having a stock with a high margin of safety is no guarantee that the investor would not face losses in the future. Businesses are subject to various internal and external risks, which may affect the earnings growth prospects of a company over the long-term. But if a portfolio of stocks is selected with adequate margin of safety, the chances of losses over the long term are minimised. He further points out, "while losing some money is an inevitable part of investing, to be an 'intelligent investor,' you must take responsibility for ensuring that you never lose most or all of your money."
Follow research: The upswing in the stock markets attracts many retail investors into investing into equities. However, picking fundamentally strong stocks is not an easy task. In fact, it is even more difficult to identify a stock in a bullish market, when much of the positives are already factored into the stock price, making them an expensive buy. It is very important to understand here that owning a stock is in effect, owning a part of the company. Hence, a detailed and thorough research of the financial and business prospects of the company is a must. Given the fact that on most occasions, research is influenced by vested interests, the need of the hour is unbiased research. Information is power and investors need to understand that unless impartially represented (in the form of research) it could be misleading and detrimental in the long run.
Invest for the long-term: Short-term stock price movements are affected by various factors including rumours, sentiments, market perception, liquidity, etc, however, in the long-term, stock price tends to align themselves with its fundamentals. Here it must be noted what Benjamin Graham once said, "...in the short term, the market is a 'voting' machine (whereon countless individuals register choices that are product partly of reason and partly of emotion), however in the long-term, the market is a 'weighing' machine (on which the value of each issue (business) is recorded by an exact and impersonal mechanism)."
Of course, it must be noted that the above list is not exhaustive and there may be many more points that an investor needs to understand and follow in order to be a successful investor. Further, the above points are not just a read but needs to be practiced on a consistent basis. While making wealth in the stock markets was never an effortless exercise, it becomes all the more difficult when stock markets/stock prices are at newer highs.