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I recently had the privilege of talking to Kenneth Andrade, who is widely acknowledged as one of the best fund managers in the mid-cap space in India.
Most people already know this legend and many refer to him as the ‘Mid-Cap Mogul’. Hence, an introduction is not necessary in Kenneth’s case. But for those who don’t know, he was the fund manager of IDFC Premier Equity Fund – one of the most popular and best performing mid-cap funds ever.
Ability to think out-of-the-box to identify the big theme, build investment hypothesis around it and most importantly, convert it into winning investments. This was and is his expertise. Now he has moved on from IDFC MF and turned into a private investor.
In this interview, he answers my questions about investor psychology, investing in stocks for the long term and mutual fund investing.
So here it is…
Common Investor Psychology
Dev: One of the biggest problems of common investors is their inability to sit. So how does an investor stay put even if (say) markets have moved from 10,000 to 20,000 in just a couple of years and he/she wants to book profits?
Kenneth: Investors do stay put in investments; except in equities. This probably is associated with the volatility of the asset class and the lack of a fixed return or physical asset.
Also no one likes negative returns and the equity asset class can’t promise that every year.
The western world has found a way around this with their pension plans. India still needs to get there. As a discretionary investor they will always give into greed at the top of the markets and fear at the bottom of the cycle. Hence the only way out is to package products, which eliminate or smoothen out volatility. Manufacturers in India have been experimenting with hybrids. They tend to cushion the volatility of the markets. Maybe that’s one way to keep the investor interested. It may not be the most efficient way of equity investing but the yields across market cycles would still be higher than mere fixed income products.
Dev: It is said that in investing, it’s very important to avoid making big mistakes. Even someone like Charlie Munger believes, that not making big mistakes is a huge determinant of whether one will have financial success in life or not.
How does a common investor identify his limitations, create a simple mental framework and more importantly, implement this framework to avoid making big mistakes?
Kenneth: The way I would address this is to invest in what you know. I am very apprehensive in putting money to work either in a company or an investment, which I don’t understand. I guess the same would apply to any investor.
One way of avoiding mistakes is to understand what you do, that way you can identify and correct it when and if it does go wrong. If you don’t know the investment, you would never know if things are going wrong in the first place.
Dev: What according to you is the biggest reason most investors don’t succeed in stock markets?
Kenneth: I guess most serious investors do succeed in markets. The longer you stay invested, the better are the results. Investing needs to be passive and rather than focus on prices investors should concentrate on the underlying. This is a learning process. And being persistent is the key to long-term success. A lot of investors give up in the short term.
Dev: How important it is for investors to have reasonable expectations? Many investors start believing that markets will continue to perform well, just because they have done so in the past. How does one correct this perception?
Kenneth: In the beginning of 2013, 10-year index returns converged with liquid fund returns. There is no set rule that equity or any asset class will deliver an above average return in perpetuity. Sure if you play with statistics, we can prove otherwise.
In the long term, any manager or fund with a return over 5%-7% (post tax) over the risk free return is a job well done. If that is the benchmark, then it is fairly important to anchor investor expectation around this number. Of course at times this could be significantly higher if a couple of asset classes do extremely well.
Dev: Volatility is one of the most recognizable and hated aspects of equity markets. And because of volatility, most investors do the exact opposite of what needs to be done. They buy (on fear of missing out) when markets are high and sell (out of fear), when its low. This seems to be driven primarily by the perception of volatility and risk being same things.
But that is not correct as per my understanding. So how does one start believing and also, convince others about the fact that volatility is an aspect of risk and it is not 100% same as risk.
Kenneth: I guess the latter part of the question can only be experienced with time in the market. In one of my presentations lately I made a point that you need to use volatility to your advantage. Markets overshoot in both directions, and if you take advantage of this it could be extremely profitable. But one needs discipline to take advantage of these extremities.
Dev: The best time to invest was yesterday. Next best is today. Though its easier said than done for most people (who invest for long term goals), how does one go about convincing people to stick with to long term mindset when it comes to investing?
Kenneth: It’s the discipline that’s very important for that. And more than convincing, it’s the investor experience in the product category that matters. If any consumer has had a good experience of a product or a service, chances are he will stick to that regime. So it’s important that a habit is cultivated.
A lot of investors like to see markets trend up so that their money is multiplied everyday. Logically if I had a steady income – I rather want to invest in a market that is sideways to down for even maybe 5-7 years. (Read I Pray for Bear Markets) That keeps my average holding of my investments low. Then if markets doubles or trends upwards, which they normally do once in 5 years, it’s a very profitable trade.
If you do the math investing in a market, which is trending upwards is very inefficient. You have a very high weighted average cost of holding and a relatively lower return than the former.
Dev: It is said that apart from returns, one should also consider many other factors while selecting a mutual fund for investing. Which factors according to you should form the key criterias for fund selection?
Kenneth: Investing in any portfolio should be a long-term commitment. Likewise the long term is also associated with durability. So if one needs to buy a MF scheme for the long term, the portfolio also needs to be in sync. There are a lot of funds out there, which promise long-term returns with the top stock undergoing tumultuous changes. Portfolio churn is never good for the long-term investor. If this were so with the underlying fund, at most the best return would be index linked. One needs to watch for this.
Dev: Inspite of MFs being the best option for common investors*, people do get attracted by the glamor of investing directly in stocks. As per my understanding, this is human nature and people will continue to do so.
But when they do it, it also makes sense to invest only in companies, which dominate their industries with no-to-moderate debts and positive cash flows (atleast for non-professional investors, these criterias should be good starting filters).
How can an investor go about finding such companies? Another problem with finding such stocks are the perennially high valuations, which they are assigned. How does one go about investing in such companies?
* neither has the time nor expertise to analyse individual stocks.
Kenneth: MFs reduce volatility and at the same time offer participation in the growth of the capital markets. Their models are largely disciplined with managers allocating money across a number of companies. Individuals can replicate this off course by buying stocks directly. The error that most investors commit is the discipline of diversification. If this were managed well the outcomes would not be very different from diversified mutual funds.
The second part of your question resonates around investment styles. And no one style fits all. But by sticking to what you understand best will give you more upsides than downs. Don’t diversify your style.
As an investor I have always shied way from levered companies (excessive debt). And I consistently look for stocks and business that are out of favour. That way you know you are getting in at the ground floor.
An example of an ideal investment case would be a loss making company with a shrinking balance sheet in an industry that is under stress. So go one step backward on what creates capital efficiency – higher profits and capital employed (RoE = Net Profit/ Shareholder Capital). The former is the function of the environment; the latter is the function of the management. Look out for the latter, this should not be bloating. Chances are these stocks will come extremely cheap because of the cycle they are in.
As investors we all consistently focused on return. On the contrary we should be risk managers. A bull market gives you the return because all stocks participate; a manager has a very little role in that. It is the downside that counts.
You have to have a framework that works in a market offering you negative returns and measure your successes by buying companies that survive an economic slide.
Dev: In one of your interviews, you said that it is very important to go for companies, which are in a space that is scalable and significant. But as Graham said in Intelligent Investor, “obvious prospects for physical growth in a business, do not translate into obvious profits for investors.”
How does one think on those lines, so as to avoid the pitfalls of investing in the wrong company in the right space? Is it that the predictability of understanding the environment that a company operates in, and the ability of the company’s management to actually execute in that environment is the most critical aspect of decision making?
If yes, how does one be sure about the management here?
Kenneth: A company profit is limited by the size of its industry. Hence my fetish for scale sets in. Off course once this scale is established, the execution has to be profitable market share growth.
In my framework any company that loses market share raises a red flag, the cost of building back market share gains is ridiculously expensive. It is an easy parameter for most investors to track. (This framework may not strictly apply to commoditized business, but it works in most cases).
Getting back to the scale question, I love excesses. I always am on the look out for the next stock market bubble and the reasons that would cause it, but I would rather preempt them. Else like every one else I end up being the follower. If this is the context, I would necessary need to find scalability in the business and in the mid term markets extrapolate these numbers creating these excesses.
Dev: Most people say that India will continue to grow for years to come. As investors we need to be optimistic about future prospects. But as I read in one of your interviews, you said that it is very important not to go into an expanding economy with the wrong portfolio.
Most people are looking at the same set of sectors, which have done, well in recent past. But to outperform over the long term, one needs to know what can drive the next bull market. Though its tough for common investors to do it, what would you advise a person who is willing to put in place a mental-framework to think on those lines?
Kenneth: That’s an easy one. Demand creates profitability, which creates market caps which in-turn creates the need for fresh capacity. So in this framework, companies, which were growing 15%-20% per annum, set up capacities to grow between 30%-50% using near term historical numbers to justify the capital investment. This creates excessive capacities. Which is why the same sectors get very capital intensive and never return to historic levels of capital efficiency and then valuations.
If the above is true, we would need to let go of the past and look at industries where supply constraints or competitive intensity is low. Chances are they hold on to their profits and efficient capital allocation. One way of tracking this is leverage. Banks usually are arbitragers of high capital efficient business and low interest rates. They usually fund excessive creation of capacity based again of near term historical numbers, which they extrapolate into the future. So look for what these institutions fund, it may be the beginning of the next economic bubble; and excessive lending may end up being the end of one.
Dev: I know that you like buying companies, which are efficient with their use of capital. How can one analyse companies to find efficient use of capital. And more importantly, how does one create a list of such (prospective) companies in the first place?
Kenneth: Go one step behind. In one of the question above I alluded to two components of the capital efficiency ratio – the numerator and the denominator (ROE = PAT/ Shareholder Capital; ROCE = PBIT/ Capital Employed). The numerator is profitability, which largely is the function of the economy; I don’t believe I can predict a complex subject of growth.
The denominator however is the function of the management and efficient capital allocation. A lower denominator is all I look for and you don’t need a model to predict that. This is already in public domain. Just look for the latter. If you buy a portfolio of 20 companies that meet this criterion, the probability of going wrong is well zero!