Equity Market Basics

I had just started college in 1981. Some saved pocket money and small prizes added up to Rs. 125, which became my first investment in shares. 3 years later I got out of college with some education, a portfolio of about Rs. 10,000 and a lesson in keeping my mouth shut.

Knowing my dad also had some investments in shares (from the addresses on the mail) I mentioned a particular stock at home. Dad promptly took me out and warned me never to speak of shares in my grandmother’s hearing. The belief was that investing in shares was as big a sin as gambling – anathema for a small town middle class family.

Stories of legendary wealth created from investments (Warren Buffet, according to an email doing its regular rounds, started at age 11 and used profits to buy a farm at 14, to turning into one of the richest men in the world), to tales of suicides by big losers would suggest that investments in shares is gambling and that the stock market is a huge gambling den. Is it?

Starting at the beginning, what is a share? If I may use examples, a person starting a small business could use his/her money, if a little more money were needed. He/she could rope in friends as partners, or borrow from banks, but would be hard-pressed if the capital required were substantially larger.

Such a businessman could split the entire owners’ capital into small units, of normally Rs. 10 and sell it to a large number of ‘investors’, each being a partner in the business to the extent of the money invested (’shares’ bought). The business would be in the form of a ‘Joint Stock Company’ (Company).

The share market? If the investor, from my previous paragraph, had invested in a share of a profitable company, others interested in being a part of the venture would try to buy shares in that company. This would take the prices up.

Conversely, if the company were not profitable the holders would try to sell it bringing down the price of the shares. The share market is a forum that facilitates and controls the transactions, to ensure the investors’ transactions are safeguarded.

This does not mean that the stock exchange guarantees profits to all investors. Every transaction of a share bought involves another where a share is sold (shares are not created at will). While the buyer would purchase a share expecting the price to go up, the seller would expect it to drop.

One would be right. The Stock Exchange is a place where a seller can find a buyer. The Exchange also ensures that the buyer receives his shares and seller his payment.

Returning to the beginning and my grandmother? How is investing different from gambling? While gambling involves chance (I do not know anything more about gambling in any form), investing involves the science of numbers. All stocks traded (stocks are bundles of shares) are at a price.

This price is normally based on measurable factors, including but not limited to the profit of the company (from which is derived the profit per share, also called Earnings per Share or EPS), Book Value (which indicates the amount of profit plowed back in the business), ROE (Return on Equity) and ROCE (Return on Capital Employed, showing how well money has been used to make profits by the Company).

Out of these come other ratios relevant to the price, like PE (Price/ Earnings, a fundamental value), PEG (PE/ Growth), P/BV (Price/ Book Value) and others. The market becomes a casino when these values are ignored and shares are bought because it is fashionable to have some!

The guru of investors, Warren Buffet, has said that he considers ROE, followed by PE, the most important values.

Returns are the most important simply because that is the reason for any investment. With a number of options available, the investor would be unwise to use the less profitable.

Therefore, knowing that your company earns reasonable returns on the money invested in its business (Return on Equity and Return on Capital Employed) is the basic parameter to value a company and its share.

PE tells us the price we pay for the returns. Simply PE is the number of years it takes to get your investment back as profits, at the present rate of profit. Obviously the investor would like to recover his investment early, so a small PE would normally be better.

An example, most small businesses are started with loans from parents or uncles, autorickshaws, fruit juice stalls, vegetable vending and the like, which are numerous successful businesses in India. The loans are taken with a promise to repay (mostly honored) the loan after deducting daily personal expenses. The loans are to be repaid in 2 or 3 years, indicating a PE of 2 or 3. Would the lending ‘uncle’ be as generous if the loan were to be repaid in 30 years? I doubt it.

But in shares investors often disregard their ‘pay-back’ period (the BSE Sensex was at a PE of 30 a few months ago), clearly indicating gambling was getting the better of investing. The market fall to a current level of about 18 PE was a natural phenomenon of valuations and better sense descending!

There are several methods to investing and they will be covered in time. The most important is to invest with some knowledge. Data is available today, as easily to the rookie, as a professional.

If the money invested is hard earned, the investor has a duty to himself, to see that the money is not lost to stupidity. Three basic types of research are Fundamental, Technical and Logical.

Fundamental research is a study of the Profit & Loss account, as well as the balance sheet of a company to check the financial health and profitability of the business. The ratios mentioned earlier all stem from this.

Technical research is a study of graphs and patterns, best left to experts. This is used to identify the best time to buy, or sell, a stock.

Logical research is simply keeping ones eyes open. The daily news often provides information on opportunities. For example, increases in interest rates hurts companies that borrow, and banks that would see erosion in the value of their bond portfolios. Increased customs duty on steel would benefit the local steel manufacturers.

Till we meet again, a word of advise. Gather some knowledge, or go to experts (through Mutual Funds). Invest so that you keep your losses low (therefore invest cheap – not at low prices, but at cheap valuations). Prefer to lose opportunities, not money (Buffet’s 2 rules to his managers are:

1) Never lose your investors’ money

2) Never forget Rule 1

May your investments be profitable and your days peaceful.

Naveen Fernandes is a Certified Financial Planner and Vice-president, Orbis Financial Corporation Ltd, Mumbai. Orbis Financial is a SEBI-approved custodian.

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