Mutual Funds

therebalacingact-624.jpgIt’s a dangerous time for investors when any and every investment makes money. I do realize that I must be sounding like a lunatic when I say that. How can things be dangerous when money is flowing into investors’ account statements as if it grew on trees? And for mutual fund investors, it does appear to be growing on trees. Of course investors in the best funds made an absolutely humongous amount of money.

Something similar has been happening for stock investors as well. Even though there were some stocks that lost money, an overwhelming number of them went up by huge margins. There isn’t really any stock or mutual fund investor out there who didn’t make a great deal of money. Therefore, what we have here is like an examination which everyone clears because the passing marks have been reduced to zero.

These are abnormal times which are very dangerous precisely because it’s impossible to make mistakes. You can invest in bad companies and bad funds and still make money. And that means that when the going gets even slightly tougher, a lot of people will find that they actually did invest in bad companies and in bad funds.

It’s an old saying that more investment mistakes are made in good times than in bad times and since the times are so good right now, the potential for making mistakes is that much higher. Investment markets change direction very quickly. Nothing prevents what look like good investments today from turning out to be bad ones.

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mentalking1.jpgIn years of answering people’s questions about investing, I’ve come to classify two major sources of problems: One, investing without thinking enough, and two, thinking too much about investments. We all know at least a few hypochondriacs who continuously suspect themselves to be suffering from dangerous illnesses and require frequent visits to specialists and get exotic medical tests done to allay their fears.

Similarly, there are a vast number of investment hypochondriacs who suspect their asset portfolios to be suffering from some dangerous disease. Generally, they believe that this disease can only be diagnosed by having a specialist examine the portfolio and test it by applying exotic formulae that will perform some magical analysis. Somewhat like its medical version, investment hypochondria, too, is encouraged by these specialists who claim to detect and cure exotic diseases suffered by investment portfolios.

One of the most popular type of diseases in this field is a faulty asset allocation. Many people are worried sick about whether their investment portfolios have the correct amount of money allocated to debt and equity. Periodically, I get asked about what the formula for calculating asset allocation is and sometimes I’m actually asked this not by a patient but by a budding specialist.

The problem, of course, is that there is no formula, nor can there ever be. Asset allocation is just a fancy term for investing according to your needs.

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ibf_current.jpgFor religious reasons, Islamic mutual funds shun nearly half of the stocks in the market, yet they still are among the top-performing U.S. funds. With Annual Growth rate of 15% and more in the recent years, the Islamic banking and Investment Industry ranks as one of the faster growing segments of the world’s financial services industry.

Estimates of the total value of assets managed according to Shari’a-compliant principles range as high as $750 billion, in other words Islamic finance is now a worldwide phenomenon.

The Islamic funds market has developed at a slower pace, but its potential is clearly huge. There are now more than 400 Islamic funds – four times the number at the turn of the century.

On the whole, the performance of Equity funds has been positive. Studies have shown that excluding financials, defense, tobacco, alcohol, leisure and entertainment stocks – as these funds must do if they are to remain Shari’a compliant – is no big disadvantage. The range of asset classes has mushroomed; a few hedge funds have also been launched.

The pace of product innovation has picked up in recent years; there are now a number of multi manager products on the market. Unit linked savings and retirement plans began to emerge few years ago, but the market is expanding fast and as many as 39 Banks have applied to distribute insurance in Saudi Arabia alone.

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image003.jpg“People who read Cosmopolitan magazine are very different from those who do not.” so said Donald Berry in ‘Statistics’.

Now you will just not have any idea of how apt that statement is unless you’ve actually read Cosmopolitan (really read it, not just look at the pictures) but I like to believe that fund investors who read Mutual Fund Insight are very different from those who don’t. I have believed so far that there are two kinds of fund investors-thinking ones and non-thinking ones. And those who invest their time and money in reading this magazine must be the thinking ones.

What distinguishes the two? The non-thinking ones are the ones who just follow whatever seems to be the flavor of the day. The thinking ones are those who carefully weigh their options, consider the facts and then take rational decisions. However, in recent months I have seen that sometimes, the final step is the same.

The non-thinking ones unthinkingly follow the flavor of the day. The thinking ones think carefully, then just ignore the conclusions and follow the flavor of the day. They look at returns, ratings, portfolio statistics and whatnot, but then turn around and invest purely driven by the fear of getting left behind by everyone else.

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whittington3.jpgThe soap company’s marketing head is taking the CEO through the plans for the new product launch. He shows the big boss two versions of the new soap, one that costs $10 and one $20. When the CEO asks, “What’s the difference?” the marketing whiz replies, “No difference, sir, some people like to pay ten, some like to pay twenty.” I was reminded of this ancient joke while I was talking to an acquaintance of mine whose job it is to sell investment products to very rich people in a part of the world that is exceptionally well-endowed with such people. My friend was extolling the virtues of ‘high-end’ portfolio management type of products, which I have never thought to be a good way to invest. “You don’t understand how the really rich think. They want exclusivity. These guys already have all the money they need – what they want is an investment product that is made specifically for them.”

This really struck a chord in mind, more so because, as it happens, I have with me a great deal of first-hand information about the performance of Portfolio Management Schemes. Over the last few months a lot of people have gotten in touch with me complaining about how they’re making less money in these schemes than they would have made had they invested even in average equity funds.

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exchange_hand_signal.jpgInvesting is so fascinating because it’s just as much about people and their emotions as it is about the raw numbers. Sure over the shorter period – and especially over the past 4 years – everyone’s an expert. It’s critical that ALL investors have a sound investment process.

It’s good to be confident, or so all of us were told when we were young. Confidence will make whatever you want achievable. So it must be very good that I’ve been meeting a lot of very confident investors these days. I met a man who started investing in stocks only three months ago and whose investments have returned more than 25 per cent during this period. That’s an annualized return of more than a 100 per cent a year, as he proudly-and accurately-informed me. Someone else I ran into started investing in February 2004 and have more than doubled his money. He has made a very confident projection that showed how fabulously rich he was likely to be in about five years’ time.

Of course, this is not just amateur hour-professional investors too are sounding like the gentlemen above. I met the marketing chief of a mutual fund company who had many megabytes of marvelously entertaining PowerPoint slides about how his fund managers had generated great returns over the last three years. I did ask him about what their returns had been like before that but the response I got made me feel that I had said something very rude.

Welcome to the land of investing geniuses, no one in this world has made any mistake on the stock market for as long as they can remember.

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andresr050700039.jpgIt takes time, sacrifice and consistency to join the million-dollar club

Quit fantasizing about marrying a millionaire, winning the lottery or walking off with a TV-quiz-show jackpot. By making your money work harder and smarter now, you can become a millionaire by the time you’re ready to kick back and trade work for play.

There’s no magic involved in reaching the million-dollar mark. If you set goals, do the research and start investing now, you can hit your wealth-building target on schedule. And you don’t have to be a financial whiz! What are needed are time, sacrifice and consistency.

Time is most significant: The longer you invest, the smaller the amount you need to put away each month to reach $1,000,000. Thus the younger you are when you start investing; the younger you’ll be when you join the million-dollar club. Many of the estimated 8 million millionaires began investing in their teens, and always with a long-term goal. Let’s say you’re 28 years old now, with no money saved or invested and would like to have a million-dollar portfolio of investments by the time you turn 60. You will need to invest $300 a month in stocks or stock mutual funds that have at least an 11 percent annual rate of return. If you increase your monthly investment to $500, you’ll hit your mark by age 54.

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eggsa.jpgWhen it comes to building your nest egg, the most important strategy is to minimize loss. The best way to minimize this risk is through the power of diversification. By diversifying your portfolio, you are ensuring that your nest egg is spread across different baskets. Diversification helps to strengthen and protect your portfolio.

Your chances are increased that if one area falls another area that you have invested in will remain strong, and your assets will be protected..

I define risk as the probability of things going wrong. Once things have gone wrong, they cannot go right. Older investors will remember this feeling they have after their losses, of wanting to turn the clock back. It is the same feeling you get after losing a loved one, when you want to reach out and touch the person after she or he is gone.

The preventive part is all about ‘diversification’, almost the only way to manage risk as defined in financial markets. Both risk measurement and diversification lend themselves to mathematical and statistical analysis, giving classical finance its biases. .

Value investors do the opposite. They add to their positions as a scrip goes down, playing to be the ‘last man standing’, i.e. trying to buy the last falling share as sellers depart the stock. The more of these ‘last’ shares they can pick up, the better their returns, provided of course, they have bought a safe, steady business at a great price, and the business recovers subsequently. .

In this strategy, you should try to trade a correlated pair as part of your diversification strategy. Like buying the market leader and short- selling the market laggard. A caution here is that if you are buying at the bottom of the cycle, then the laggards gain more than the market leaders. In a bull market, buying the market leader and short-selling the laggard may be a good trading strategy. Make sure that you don’t make a mistake in reading the market for example, is this a bull market or a bear?. Across the world, the cost of capital will soon start to drop. That would suggest a very shallow bear market, if we see one at all. Even a normally ‘bearish’ person like me is not willing to take a stand.

Statistically one thing is clear – traditional means of diversification won’t save you. Remember one common mistake: mindlessly diversifying into, say, 100-200 stocks, which then go unmonitored for entry and exit points. Since the investor no longer knows enough about these businesses, he is prone to fall prey to rumors. In effect, the act of ‘diversifying’ will actually increase the probability of losses rather than reduce it.

True diversification includes far more investment choices than just stocks and bonds. It includes other non-correlating asset classes that don’t intrinsically involve either speculation or timing. Aggressive investors like the readers of this article must be having more than 50 per cent of their net worth in equities, especially if they are below 40.

With each investment be sure to invest no more than you can afford to lose, so you can sleep at night. And use dollar cost averaging – taking a fixed proportion of your personal savings each month to add to your investment holdings, so that volatility becomes an advantage over a long time horizon. Only then will diversification begin to make statistical sense.

addingvalue.jpgPerfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

What, you may ask, is the connection between minimalism and investments? A very close connection, I think. When I look at the market for investment products today, and see the kind of investment portfolios that people are collecting, I think there’s a strong need for a self-conscious and aggressive minimalism in investment planning. What is happening now is the very opposite. The loudest messages about investments and savings that reach people are advertising about the launch of new mutual funds. This collective impact of these messages is to fabricate the idea that your investment needs are best met by portioning out little bits of your savings into a large number of exotic and specialized mutual funds.

Here’s a sampling of just the last few months. There are funds specializing in different sizes of companies-large, medium, small and micro. There’s a fund for companies that are facing ‘unique’ situations, which are apparently different from ‘special’ situations. There’s a fund for investing in companies that will benefit from increased infrastructure spending and one for only companies that will benefit from increased consumer spending. There’s a fund for investing in companies that are growing fast and another one only for companies that will grow fast in the long-term. There are even some funds that specialize in companies of all sizes although that’s clearly a meaning of the word ‘specialize’ that’s not there in any dictionary that I have seen.

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They’re boring and passive. They are run on autopilot byindex_funds.jpg hands off managers. Instead of making decisions about the best course of action, the managers merely try to match the overall market’s performance. They strive to be average. But an investing strategy built on these funds will soon bring higher returns than chasing after the best actively managed mutual fund.

A portfolio manager actively manages the traditional equity fund. They buy and sell stock frequently in attempts to “outperform the market,” usually defined by a broad measure.. Index funds are passively managed. Their manager’s buy and hold only the stocks contained in their chosen benchmark. Their aim is to imitate returns, whether the market goes up or down.

They sell only when an investor redeems his investment or if a stock is kicked out of the Index. This passive investment saves money on research, salaries, and other overhead, and it avoids the emotional traps of buying at the top and selling at the bottom that torment active managers. The biggest saving for Index funds is the brokerage and other trading costs which active manager incur on their hyper active trading. In theory, this all leads to higher returns.

Which of the two is better? Let’s look at the odds. But with their growing numbers, it is difficult to guess how many will beat the benchmark in the long-term. And as the number of fund increase, it will get tough to pick the winners. And you will have to work to pick the right ones. But it takes little effort to pick an index fund that delivers almost the same return. You certainly won’t beat “the market,” but you’ll beat almost everyone working hard to make a choice.

Besides, index funds give you the diversity with discipline. You don’t run the risk of building large position in a small, illiquid company that concentrates you in one industry. Index funds give you a healthy dose of large companies that represent many industries, and the shares of these funds are easily bought and sold.

Which index fund should you pick? Every thing being equal the least expensive fund will be a winner. And recurring fund expense is a function of a funds size. The larger the fund, lower the expenses.

Besides, as an Index fund investor, you’re not getting any extra value. After all, the fund is merely trying to match the index. As you don’t need an advice to buy an Index fund, so you should never pay a sales charge on an index fund. But every Index fund (barring the tax saver) available today charges a load as they pay the fund sales man to sell the concept.