I regularly try to understand the assumptions which drive my portfolio decisions, which in turn have a major impact on the long term returns . There is a fancy term for this process – meta congnition or ‘thinking about thinking’.

I have realized (and will continue to discover) that I have made sub-optimal decisions in the past due to various assumptions. One of the most damaging assumptions has been this – One should buy stocks when the market is low and sell when the market is high.

This assumption and way of thinking is more or less a stupid way of investing in the markets. I have engaged in it in the past and have paid a heavy price in terms of opportunity cost

Reason behind this thinking
I think the main reason behind this thinking is due the negative effect of all the media chatter and noise. The commentators on various financial channels are paid by the volume and not by intelligence. If a financial commentator recommended a great stock or great idea and then asked you check back after one year, do you think they will remain in business?

As a result of this bais (towards unnecessary activity), the media and a lot investors have to discuss about something. Now, you can’t discuss about the fundamental performance of stocks every day ..isnt it ? so what better topic to discuss than market levels and price action of various stocks?

Does the market level even matter ?
The first question I am asked after someone comes to know that I invest regularly is – do you think the market is high or low and should they wait for a particular level before they starting putting money into the market ?

What do you people mean by the market level ?

The market level is usually the index which in turn is a weighted average of a fixed number of stocks (for example nifty is an average of 50 stocks). So the notion is that the market is overvalued or undervalued at some number at a particular point in time.

The problem with this question is the market level is immaterial if you want to buy individual stocks. If the stock you want to buy is overpriced, then a low market does not matter and vice versa.

The only case where the market level would matter is if you plan to invest a large sum of money into the index.

How has this assumption hurt me?
I have engaged in this convoluted thinking in the past. As a result, I have slackened during bull runs assuming that most of the stocks would be overpriced. The reality is that even during bull runs there are stocks which are undervalued, but it takes more effort to dig them out.

I abandonded this thinking two years back and have started looking for good ideas irrespective of the market level. If the stock is underpriced, I will create a position in the stock irrespective of the market levels. If the market drops and the stock drops too, then all the better as I am able to add to my position further at a lower price.

A real example
One can have several counter points to the above thought process

–        Should one not wait for the markets to drop so that you can buy the stock even cheaper?
–        Will the stock appreciate if the market drops and remains at lower levels for extended periods of time?

To the first point – if you can see the future (know if the market will drop in the future), then either you are a gifted person or completely delusional. If you are gifted, then use your talents to do something big or world changing.

One cannot invest based on hindsight and we have to make decisions based on what we know now (the stock is cheap  or not based on current facts!)

On the second point – The long term returns of a stock is dependent on the level of undervaluation and fundamental performance of a company and not entirely on the market level. As an example, in early 2008, mid cap IT stocks were among the most ignored group. The future was not bright for them.

I wrote about IT stocks (NIIT tech in particular)  in Q2 of 2008 and felt that the market was over discounting the future. Interestingly the future turned out to be worse than anyone imagined. Inspite of that, these companies survived and have done fine.

The market has since then corrected the undervaluation and these stocks have doubled during this period whereas the index (aka market level) has been more or less flat.

Focus on the important and knowable
As warren buffett has said, an investor should focus on the important (fundamental performance of a company) and the knowable (current performance and not future market levels). The rest is noise and a smart approach is to ignore it.

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