Investing: Personal Portfolio

Before one decides that they want to invest they need to make a few sub-decisions. Firstly one must know the purpose why they are investing, where they will invest, how they will invest and when they will invest. If these elements are not outlined clearly then there may be losses that occur because of this indecision.

THE WHY QUESTION

Dealing with the why question involves looking to the future. This is the intent and purpose why you are delaying consumption. Many people have different reasons why they go into different investment vehicles. As an investor you need to decide what tenure is best for you. I personally classify investment horizons into three; short, medium and long term. The short-term is for those investors who want a quick maturity of their investments that ranges from days to a year. Medium-term would be anything from 1 year to 5 years. Long-term would be anything above 5 years.

For example is someone is trading on news or merely speculating on price movements, they would go long or short for a limited time horizon. In this type of investment technical analysis is used to study the trends and candlesticks of an underlying investment such as currency pairs in foreign exchange arbitrage. Transactions of this kind can hardly be called investing. I would call them speculating since they do not take into account any meaningful fundamentals and hence the odds of making a profit become no different than tossing a coin. However if someone is saving for a wedding it would be critical to have an investment vehicle that is liquid and preserves the initial capital or principal such as fixed income securities or treasury bills (TBs). Such a person would be looking at a medium-term horizon depending on when he intends to liquidate and have the wedding. However if a 25 year old starts saving for retirement they have more time to hold investments until their prices align with their true values (in the case of value investors). Such a person could go long in stocks and hold them. In this instance, fluctuation of the stock is not as important since liquidation of the investment is deferred.

It is vital for anyone to decide why they are investing as this will give an acceptable time horizon bench-mark and more importantly determine the risk level acceptable to their portfolio.

THE WHERE QUESTION

Once one is clear why they are investing, it will not be hard to establish where they must invest. If you are simply speculating then there is need to take cover in the hedging system. This is because your positions are just guesses that may turn out wrong. This was coined in the saying “downside risk and upside potential”. So if you have bought long a mining stock that you anticipate going up, you may want to protect yourself by going to the derivatives market and buy a put on the same stock. A put is a right but not an obligation to sell an underlying security at a predetermined strike price in the future. So if the security price goes down the holder of the put may still sell at a higher price than the ruling market value of the underlying security (mining stock). These complex transactions are normally done by active traders in search of alpha. I would not recommend a novice trader to be dealing the derivatives market as even the most experienced fund managers and business remodeling gurus like Andrew Fastow shipwrecked because of them.

The novice investor can participate in two broad markets; the money and capital markets. The rule to success is keeping it simple. The money market serves those who are in the short-term investment horizon and the capital market serves those who are in the medium to long-term investment horizon. These two markets can be very crucial in making sure that your portfolio is well diversified and balanced. The money market gives a choice of investments such as TBs, negotiable certificates of deposit (NCDs), and other short-term debt instruments. Such instruments stabilize the value of a portfolio since they are not as volatile as stocks. The mix between stocks and debt instruments in a portfolio should be according to an investors risk profile. For the risk-averse investor, a portfolio could have 60%-80% debt instruments (with triple A ratings) and 20%-40% stocks (blue chips). For the more risk-loving investor a portfolio could have the above weighting but however inverted between stocks and debt instruments.

You can choose to divide the debt into time horizons as well but however remember that there is price volatility on long-term bonds caused by interest rate fluctuations. Stocks can be sub-divided into small, medium and large cap; value, growth, dividend and so on. If you are after higher return you could look at investing in emerging markets like India. The stock exchanges in India are among the top paying exchanges in the world in terms of yearly market return. It may be a mammoth task to invest in these exchanges on your own. You can easily do this through world funds like the Templeton India Growth Fund and many others. However to be able to harvest the maximum returns from these funds you need to hold your investment for more than five years. This is because you may end up being hurt by transaction costs and capital gains tax.

HOW AND WHEN QUESTION

Mutual funds are a good way to get started if you are a novice investor. It is not advisable to search for a fund using the highest returns from a single period. A fund has got to consistently return above market to qualify to be enlisted on your potentials. Also evaluate how they invest and their risk tolerance before you take the leap. Once you have invested do not jump from fund to fund as this will hurt your returns. Better still you may choose index funds that emulate a certain sector of the market or a whole market as John Bogle demonstrated with the Vanguard 500 Index Fund. The lack of active management generally gives the advantage of lower fees (which would otherwise reduce an investor’s return) and in taxable accounts, lower tax.

If an investor has the basics to begin investing on their own, I would suggest a concentrated portfolio. This portfolio is made up of a small number of stocks (advisably below ten) that you select and invest in. At best a concentrated portfolio must have stocks from sectors that can achieve negatively correlated returns. However if one carries out a thorough fundamental analysis and constantly reviews the portfolio to check for divergences there will be no need to structure a portfolio using the academic approach mentioned above.

Fundamental Analysis

When conducting fundamental analysis, an investor wants to be sure that they are buying a healthy business. Stock prices in the long run eventually align with the financial health of the underlying stock. The stock market punishes the weaklings and rewards the strong. Hence in doing your fundamental analysis you can look at the following aspects:

1. Market share trends – when the market share of a business is decreasing it is a clear sign that it is heading for the doldrums. Business can be operating in decreasing, static or growing markets. You will be better off if you buy a company that is increasing its market share in either a static or growing market. An investor can use the Porter’s Five Forces to analyze an industry and the market trends existing therein.

Management – the ultimate test of management is their frugality. In the words of Peter Lynch, if you invest in a company with gold plated toilet seats at its headquarters you have most likely contributed towards their purchase. Salaries paid to managers and the consistency of business strategy can also indicate the suitability of management. If you see management with such inconsistent strategies like raising equity financing and paying out dividends at the same time you should be suspicious. Managers must be open, have integrity and be honest. This is the criteria that the famous investor Warren Buffet uses.

2. Return on Equity (ROE) – this is by far the most important indicator of the financial health of a business. This indicator shows the return as a percentage of the equity or shareholders’ worth. It is specifically an investor ratio. Look at the ratio starting 10 year back to the present time. Look at how the trend is progressing. Make sure the accounting policies are consistent over the same period to avoid concealment of salient problems. You should invest in companies with a high and/or increasing ROE ratio. This also shows that the management is careful to incessantly increase shareholder value.

3. Price-Earnings Ratio (P/E) – this ratio equates the price of a share to the earnings it made over a period of 6 months or a year. It can also be a forward P/E when it measures using forecast earnings. This ratio is great if you are a value investor. You have heard the gurus say “always buy low and sell high to make the most returns”. But how do you determine whether a stock is cheap? You use the P/E ratio. However you must be careful to research why a stock has a low or high P/E ratio. According to the Efficient Markets Hypothesis all the information of a stock is reflected in its price. So if a stock has a low P/E ratio, it might be because it has very little prospects. On the other hand if a stock has a high P/E it may mean that the market has factored in its future growth. To measure this aspect analysts take to the PEG ratio that expresses the P/E over the future growth anticipated for that stock. However there are some stocks that tend to go under the market radar and it will take a lot of work to identify them.

4. Dividend paying stocks – these companies give back money to the shareholder in the form of dividends. Buy stocks in companies that pay dividends or buy back their own stock. Any company that does not have suitable merger or acquisition targets must give back money to the shareholders. A lot of companies lose money by trying to go into new industries in which they are ill experienced. This is why a company which buys back its own shares is a good company to invest in. By buying back shares, a company is actually reducing the supply of those shares on the market. From your Economics 101 course you probably know that when demand is more than supply the price goes up. So when the price of the shares goes up the investor has been rewarded by capital gains. On the other hand when dividends are paid the investor has been rewarded by income.

5. Debt – invest in companies that are debt-free or have low gearing. Gearing is the ratio of debt to equity. When a company is leveraged its returns will have more risk as measured by standard deviation. Also in bad times a leveraged company suffers more than a debt-free one. Debt covenants can be very stringent demanding a company to disclose whenever they enter into any riskier projects. Other lenders will recall the bonds placing the company at the risk of bankruptcy. Cash rich companies are better and less risky than debt-ridden ones. They can easily weather a financial storm than those companies in debt and cash-strapped.

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