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Can you double my money?

Originally published in the anniversary edition of The Financial Express

As an employee of a stock brokerage I often find myself in situations where people want investment advice. This has to be a Bangladeshi investment analyst’s worst nightmare. It is a clear case of ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ because if the advice works no credit will be given to the analyst. If it doesn’t, then may God help the analyst.

The Weakening of Bargaining Power

Venezuela is worried. Scarcity of basic items have caused consumers to queue in front of convenience stores overnight to buy milk. Hugo Chavez’s socialist ideals seem to have floundered as the social hierarchy unravels with the poorer waiting and the richer satiated. Many blame the corrupt government for siphoning money away from social services; others blame the drastic reduction of the oil price. The anchor of the Venezuelan economy has been oil, and diversifying away was never strongly encouraged, leaving the South American nation a dependent state.

It would be mistaken to think that there is one reason for the crisis in Venezuela. Corruption and decreasing oil prices have all contributed to the problem. One cannot say that Venezuela would still be suffering if the oil prices had stayed over $100 and corruption remained; none of these issues are mutually exclusive. Indeed, the economic success and sustenance of any nation is multifaceted and dependent on both internal forces (politics, commercialism, cultural philosophy, etc) as well as external (remittances, sanctions, oil prices, etc). A ruler has to be concerned with both.

Even so, the complexity of modern day markets, the intertwinement of systems, the ripple-effect ramifications of the actions of foreign nations means that nations can no longer look inside for sustenance and growth (unless you are North Korea, but as the recent Hollywood debacle has shown, they are far from being out in the cold). OPEC has shown that with reducing prices to increase supply, countries can be affected in different ways. While the US and Saudi Arabia may be lighting up a cigar with a smile on their blackened faces, Venezuela and Iran are wiping their brow.  We do not seem to live in a United Nations world.

In theory when countries trade with each other, they are making themselves better off (both countries are getting what they want).  It is the case of the market forces acting in favor of both parties. Yet this is not always the case. The bargaining power of one nation or one company can be far greater than the other, placing them in the position to dictate prices. The more powerful, in the end, have a greater say in how a transaction should effectively take place.

Thus the markets are not so benign as the theory of perfectly competitive markets would aspire for, and neither does the invisible hand exercise the best outcome where we reach market equilibrium. It is assumed that demand will meet supply where both parties are happy with the quantity sold and the price for each unit. This notion is weakened the greater disparity in bargaining power.  We see this both in the goods and the labour market and more often than not these markets intertwine.

As an example, a major brand in West wish to sell shirts. The brand shops around and finds a Bangladesh garment factory that is offering to sell shirts for the lowest cost. Higher management of the brand go to Bangladesh, accept the quality to be reasonable, and offer the contract to the garment factory. The brand can now buy at a cheaper cost but sell at a higher price. That latter price might be at a correct market price as the brand has to rely on the consumers to buy and the higher the price, the less the demand. In Bangladesh, however, the garment factory owner is thinking he wants a lot of money too. He has the luxury to push down wages to such a point as the workers are happy although not comfortable. Now one could argue that this is a market wage, yet cut the share of the profits going to the garment factory owner and transfer it to the workers wage, market wages go up.

Thus the bargaining power of the brand is higher with the garment factory, and the bargaining power of the owner is higher than his worker. Those with stronger bargaining powers can dictate terms manipulating the needs of their transactional partner. Recently in the UK, the Think Tank Civitatis was found to charge their unpaid interns 300 pounds for a reference. A graduate looking to climb the career ladder and finding options in today’s economy to be limited would begrudgingly pay (if he had the money). Civitatis would argue we are offering them a benefit, and they should pay. All that is happening is a manipulation of bargaining power.

Would we call these examples as milder forms of oppression? Many would disagree arguing that the weaker party is getting a benefit he otherwise would not have. Furthermore, by working he has the opportunity to rise out the mire of his own poverty and be able to strengthen his own bargaining power. This is a curious argument, yet one that development economists hear when explaining growth in nations. The developed world was once a drudgery with inequality far greater than today. The UK and US lived with stark class tensions with the working classes toiling while the upper classes reaped the rewards. Yet wealth trickled down changing society in remarkable ways.

One could argue this was due to the market. However, this is too simple and general an assumption. Certainly the market led to better distribution, but more importantly, it was the values of market participants that led beneficial changes. Here we are not talking about just the buyer and seller; we are talking about society in general with members invested in the distribution of social benefits. The notion of a social welfare state rests upon a polity that is looking out for their own.

The market, therefore, cannot be considered in isolation. Every market agent is member of society, and if society is to be utilitarian then the market has to be too, that is happiness for the greatest amount of people.  However, the more parochial and selfish the market participant then the likelihood is society will suffer its consequent ignominies. This is worrying if one simply considers the domestic market; it becomes are far greater concern if we increase the number of players as happens with the international market thus meaning an agent with greater bargaining power in one country can dictate the terms for his transactional party in another country who then dictates his terms to a weaker party in his own country.

In Venezuela, the above principle is manifest, as OPEC reduces its prices. Venezuela accepts the terms of lower oil prices. Corruption means the profits available go to a select few, who perhaps pay for more luxury items meaning money does not get into the domestic economy sufficiently. There is more to this story, but when we strip to the layers of complexity the basic lesson is that the greater disparity in bargaining power and the more self interested, the less likely the invisible hand will be successful as our free market proponents believe.  The values of market participants are central to understanding the markets irrespective of the laws that seek to restrain vices. But this is a story for another day.

Top posts of 2014

2014 has come to an end. I thought it would be useful for the readers to know the most popular blog posts of the year. So without much ado, here they are.

Education and Career Planning

1. The ‘fresh graduate’ guide for the first 5 years on the job

2. Knowledge from unconventional sources

3. Learning straight from the leading experts of the world

Finance and Economics

1. Cost of equity in ‘frontier’ markets

2. The best books on stock investing

3. Bangladesh Macroeconomic Outlook for 2014

CFA Preparation

1. My foolproof method for passing the beast called CFA

2. How to utilize the last 30 days before CFA exam

3. Fahd Niaz on “CFA Level 1 Preparation”

Other sections

1. How bull markets find their way into weddings

2. What makes people happy?

3. Improving English the fun way

Investment checklists and dealing with contradictory information

Many of the great value investors use investment checklists while screening out investment opportunities. Using checklists for initial screening is a widely accepted and popular method.  The beauty of checklists is that they can be used for a wide range of things (not just investing). I recommend a great book on the subject written by Atul Gawande called The Checklist Manifesto.

One of the challenges equity analysts and investors face  is contradictory information on the checklists. What I mean is that, no single company will have everything positive going for it. There will always be certain factors that will be less than ideal.

Let us take a theoretical situation where we are judging a company on the basis of governance, profitability, growth, economy in which they run, competitive environment etc. The most likely case is that the company will not rate highly in these factors. A couple of the factors like economy and competition is also beyond the company’s control. What this means for any investor is that, before investing they will have to have trade-offs not only on these qualitative and quantitative factors but also when comparing with valuations.

Here are two things I recommend to work around this problem.

Have a list of deal-breakers

While screening a few things are deal breakers for me. Bad governance is definitely the number one deal breaker because I think the value of a minority share in a badly governed company is ZERO. Inability to generate returns equal to cost of capital over an entire business cycle is another one. Extremely irrational competition (e.g. price wars with no end in sight) or regulatory pressures (taxes being raised to finance growing budget deficit) can also be deal breakers. Sometimes, economic health can put the country in a no-invest zone. Russia or Argentina at present moment can be an example.

What this exercise does is clearly set situations where we are not willing to compromise.

Compare the negatives with the potential upside

For all other negatives (that are not deal-breakers) like a sudden increase in competition, an increase in raw material price reducing margins etc we have to compare them with upside derived from our fair value model. If our forecasts already account for these negatives then they are already accounted for. If the situation is binary and it is difficult to quantify the impact then we might need to resort to other qualitative judgments (compare the risk vs the upside).

In conclusion, the reason for writing this post is to add to my existing blog posts on why investing is a fairly complicated thing. It perennially involves looking at multiple factors, understanding probabilities and dealing with uncertainties. There are no perfect investments and no perfect methods for generating massive returns.


Stock price movements – the confusions and (possible) explanations

Investing is a humbling experience. Even for the smartest of people in the world it is filled with failures of various magnitudes. This is because, as we all know there is no exact science or magic formula (Joel Greenblatt might disagree with me here) that leads to perfect results.

Let me take stock price movements as an example. Fundamental investing is done on the whole basis of identifying undervalued stocks and holding them till fair value is achieved. This simple logic isn’t as simple as it sounds. I want to discuss two different issues related to this which makes it so complicated.

Design is….

Amit Richard is a self-taught freelance graphics designer. With almost six years of experience, he has undertaken projects in several areas of design ranging from logo and corporate identity design to web interface design and print graphics. He has worked with a number of international brands directly and via third-party, some of which include Marks & Spenser, NBC Universal and Blackberry. Check out his works at RichardDesigns.

Starfall by Amit Richard

I was sitting in traffic on the way to a meeting. As I thought the meeting might include some junior designers, I decided I would ask what design meant to each one of them individually. That’s when I asked myself the same question. This is my answer to myself:

Design…Design is passion, design is creation and inspiration. Design isn’t limited to the visual representation – there’s more to it – from blueprint to final execution – it’s the entire process, the experience, design is..the solution.

It is the implementation of an idea that not only meets the expectations of clients and final users, but is an innovation that transforms wants into needs; design is..the revolution.

Design is also expression – expression of values, principles, style and taste, but most of all it is the expression of the ever creative GOD’S handiwork from beginning till date.

Design is what builds, what motivates, what procures and what endures.

ROIC vs Earnings Growth

All things remaining equal, companies with better growth prospects (of earnings) are more valuable than those that have inferior growth prospects. Consider three companies A, B and C. The first two will have earnings growth of 25% for the next 3 years while the third one can grow earnings at 10%. Which one is more valuable?  A and B should have a higher value compared to C.

Asif Khan Blog now has 300 registered readers!!!

The Asif Khan Blog just got its 300th registered subscriber. We want to thank all our readers and well wishers for motivating us to come so far. Special thanks to Tasnova for being the 300th registered reader of the blog. As we have achieved a small milestone I want to give some more numbers for our readers.

  • Since the start of the blog (less than a year) the blog achieved 47,254 views
  • The highest number of views in a single day was 1,461
  • A total of 461 comments had been posted by the readers and the authors
Source: WordPress

More fascinating is the truly diverse set of readers coming from around the world. The blog had readers from 146 countries!!!! The heat map above indicates this graphically. The top 10 locations are

  • Bangladesh – 17,516 views (37.1%)
  • United States of America – 9,458 views (20.0%)
  • India – 3,142 views (6.6%)
  • Canada – 2,483 views (5.3%)
  • United Kingdom – 2,147 views (4.5%)
  • Pakistan – 1,622 views (3.4%)
  • Singapore – 945 views (2.0%)
  • Australia – 786 views (1.7%)
  • UAE – 568 views (1.2%)
  • Germany – 504 views (1.1%)

Finance for non-finance 1: Understanding real growth

Some of the very basic things that a finance or economics student studies can be quite baffling to people who have not studied these subjects. However, it is of utmost importance that people understand these concepts because they influence their everyday life and happiness considerably. I would try to write on a few of these issues in basic terms.

Bangladesh ranking drops one place in Legatum Prosperity Index 2014

The Legatum Institute just launched the Legatum Prosperity Index 2014. This is an annual ranking of 142 countries and is based on a number of factors including Economy, Governance, Personal Freedom, Education, Health, Entrepreneurship and Opportunity, Safety and Security and Social Capital. Across these categories, 89 variables are used to make scores and rankings

Ranking by year