A Strategic View of Pharma (Indian Pharma)

I work for a strategy consulting firm (not in the pharma domain). And often, industry outsiders primarily look at us as ‘hawabaazi’ /’seeing our watch and telling us the time’ – which is an extremely good place to start with. Sets low expectations. And as we all know, low expectations is the key to happiness as well as over-achievement. So, here is the ‘hawabaazi’ view of how I am seeing Pharma as of today – mostly will try to delineate the Hope vs Reality of the current situation. As usual, any of the stocks mentioned below are NOT stock recommendations and I am NOT a registered investment advisor. This is for learning and exchanging views.

The Return of Pharma Growth

The Hope:

Indian pharma companies were in deep capex mode from FY15-FY19. And there were also pricing pressures in the most lucrative market (US). Now

a) the pricing pressures are easing because of Covid

b) more FDA approvals are forthcoming which means FDA will not be as strict as they were in the FY15-FY19 period

c) pharma is a recurring consumption (in most parts) and no lockdown has affected this spending and therefore predictable growth than other sectors atleast for FY21

d) Most pharma companies have ended their capex and are re-looking at their capital allocations vis-à-vis the markets and are focused more on emerging markets and India where pricing isn’t so bad and hence RoCEs will return with lesser capex and better pricing and

e) somehow we are in a ‘strategic’ position to help US scale up on their manufacturing.

So, large growing opportunity. Hence bullish.

The Reality

I will try to answer a) and b) in detail below, but just to answer the other questions (c-e) quickly.

c) is a temporary phenomenon – but might be important for flows

d) opportunity size is limited and too many players are focusing on it all at once (which essentially means, increased competition, ergo reduced returns) and

e) is in the category of ‘what are you smoking’ (Mylan itself has 8 API manufacturing facilities and 2 formulation facilities in India – with enough US incentives, they can help a whole range of mfg scale)

So, coming back to a) and b).

So, a) why did pricing pressures come about?

  • In the year 2007, there were 11 distributors who would buy your products – wholesalers (Amerisource Bergen, Cardinal Health, McKesson), Retailers (Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, Pharmacy benefit management (PBMs) (Express Scripts, Caremark, Medco) and Key global distributors (Alliance Boots, Celesio) covering 80% of the generics market
  • And then, buyer consolidation started happening. From 2015-16, there are only 3 wholesalers/retailers (Walgreens Boots alliance having 31% market share, Red Oak (erstwhile Cardinal Health + CVS) having 27% market share and McKesson (Celesio, Rite Aid merged with McKesson) having 24% market share. That’s 82% market share between 3 players
  • So, when people talk (or more likely give goli) about pricing pressures easing, the one question you need to ask is – what has changed? Did any of the Big Three break their alliance? Have the Big Three become more lenient than ruthless? Is there a 4th major player emerging who will buy your products? What exactly are the factors that will lead to pricing pressures easing? Even if they ease for certain products due to Covid (or due to certain supply shocks which will close quickly), there is no strategic rationale for pricing pressures to ease over the longer term
  • Add this to the surge in ANDA approvals from almost all Indian pharma players in 2015-19 period (ergo, more competition, lower generic prices) and combine with buyer consolidation – why will the pricing pressure suddenly ease off?

The generics market in the US has been in the range of USD 75-80B for the past 5 years – and I don’t see a reason why this will suddenly increase when there is no new segment (like biosimilars) that are folks are getting into (we have had high hopes of making our mark in ‘complex/specialty generics’ and therefore increase this number – but as I elucidate below, that’s a pipe dream as well).

So, b) More FDA approvals forthcoming

I am not sure why market participants are excited about this development. No one getting the approval is almost the same as everyone getting an approval – the whole point of making profits is scarcity and exclusivity. Time was ripe for compliant-players to make a lot of money when everyone else was getting FDA VAIs and OAIs. But everyone getting a FDA green signal – why would you be excited? So essentially, more approvals -> more supply -> more competition -> no

That being said, if you analyse the FDA approvals coming by, except for Lupin and Aurobindo plant, most of the EIRs that were received were for VAI plants and not OAI plants. But people will also point out specific events like Ipca’s HCQ being exempted from a OAI plant? But folks, this is not the first time. FDA had exempted 10 molecules from Divi’s plant when it received a OAI (Ranbaxy and Wockhardt were provided similar exemptions in the past inspite of OAI on their plants, depending on the criticality of the molecule). Some sharper folks will also point out to expedited ANDA approvals as a sign that FDA is easing (or the company in question is a visionary or both) like it happened for Cipla’s Albuterol inhaler. But the point to note is that this inhaler was needed for patients with respiratory issues when Covid struck – we can’t really extrapolate this generic data to all of pharma, just because we think Pharma is a ‘Buy’.

The overall strategic point being – don’t be excited because neither has buyer consolidation gone away and neither has competition intensity decreased (and definitely don’t go by the golis in webinars by pharma MFs). And people will definitely not consume more medicines because there is Covid. 

Specialty Pharma:

Of course, these days every drug is a specialty drug – even paracetamol and metformin are called specialty drugs by anyone bullish on pharma. But what is the true definition of specialty pharma? Specialty pharma is usually oral or injectable medications (which are complex medications) usually used to treat complex chronic conditions. Their features typically include a) high cost ($1000/day for 30 day supply) b) high complexity (complex R&D, biologic/biosimilar, orphan drugs etc.) and c) high touch.

The Hope

Specialty pharma is a large market (USD 1000B globally) of which specialty pharma share is about 28%. US is a USD 400B market, of which specialty’s share is about 36%. India lags, with only 8% of specialty pharma share in a USD 15B market. The top three therapies globally in specialty pharma are Oncology (30% share), Auto-immune disorders (28% share) and Anti-viral medications (17% share).

There are many players in India doing specialty pharma, and there have been some very attractive exits as well in this market (Gland pharma to Fosun, Claris to Baxter, Agila to Mylan etc.). Given these exits, coupled with high growth and large market size, no wonder everyone in India’s pharma industry wanted to get on the bandwagon on specialty pharma and just leverage it to the hilt (and everyone singing praises as usual).

The Reality

Indian pharma companies (save for Biocon) have traditionally had a DNA of generics-at-scale. A few of the better ones tried and have been successful at branded-generics-at-scale. But a lot of them didn’t have the DNA to do specialty pharma – and given the attractive nature of the specialty market, especially in the US – tried acquiring the DNA.

  • Some of the large acquisitions over the past decade – Cadila (acquiring Sentynl for Rs. 9B in 2017, and already wrote off 30% with more to come), Dr. Reddy’s (acquiring lot of Teva’s ANDAs at $350M and writing off 75% of it), Lupin (acquiring Gavis pharma at $880M, writing most of it off), Torrent (acquiring Bio-pharm) etc.
  • We have traditionally lagged with the lucrative part of the specialty segment like inhalers, transdermals and long acting injectables. However, broadly, Dr. Reddy’s has announced exit from specialty front-end (sold off all neurology brands and most of dermatology brands – had targeted $400M revenue by FY22 – which now of course is not achievable), Cipla has spoken about reducing complex/specialty pharma investments (with focus primarily on respiratory/inhalers), Lupin of course has written off most of Gavis (and exiting Japan completely – a geography which constitutes 20% of Lupin’s sales), and Sun Pharma unable to launch any complex generics after Doxil and Gleevec (their US specialty revenue of $400M coming primarily from only 2 brands)
  • With the changing US pharma industry’s dynamics (more below), almost all pharma players are pivoting completely and now directing their capital to the double-digit growth and faster capital turnaround spaces of India and Rest of World (read China, Brazil, Canada)
  • Conclusion being – not many pharma players will continue their investments in the complex/specialty pharma space as the market dynamics are extremely difficult. So, the lucrativeness of ‘specialty pharma’ – next time you know what to say.

The overall strategic point being – almost everyone has bolted from the specialty pharma market in the most lucrative geography (US). Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise 


The Hope

Biologics are a USD 300B market globally, and there are 4-5 companies in the top 10 pharma companies whose sole claim to fame is biologics. Everyone thought that we would replicate the successes of brands to generics in the biosimilar market as well.

I mean, why not, right? Biologics was a fast growing market and many biologics have gone off patent in the last 10 years and US alone is a USD 11B market, with rest of the world growing much ahead of the US. Biologics was solving some unique problems that chemical-based drugs weren’t able to solve earlier (several auto-immune disorders, rheumatoid arthritis etc.) and the insurance companies (and payers) were looking to reduce this ever growing cost.

So, what gives? Why are our pharma companies not making money hand over fist? Do you know large companies like Sun Pharma don’t even have any publicly known biologic/biosimilar development in place? If Sun Pharma doesn’t want to expend resources, who else has the capability to do it? Will we ever get on the biosimilar gravy train?

The Reality

  • First place to understand the present is to look at the past. So, why did chemical-based generics succeed? Even better, why did the Indian pharma companies succeed in the generics space? That’s because there was an extremely mature Hatch-Waxman act of 1984 that had an extensive framework of time and litigation for branded patent drugs to convert to generics. Almost the entire success of our Generics industry can be boiled back to this one act that the US enacted. 30 months delay for litigated drugs, ANDAs, 180-day exclusivity, state laws allowing generic forms to be substituted automatically by pharmacists for brand-name drugs prescribed by physicians, so long as physicians have not specified that the prescription must be ‘‘dispensed as written’ (also called ‘interchangeability’ – remember this!) and so on and so forth. Extremely mature framework and predictability for both the patent owners as well as generics
  • Compared to the mature Hatch-Waxman act, the US implemented the BPCIA act for Biosimilars. BPCIA was enacted in 2009, but the first USFDA approved biosimilar came in only in 2015. I have read quite a few articles on this act, and my basic understanding is that the act is so poorly written that there have been litigations at every stage of a biosimilar evaluation (for example, naming of biosimilars, scope of patent dance protocols, and of course the big one ‘interchangeability’. There are many conflicts and cases around this, but one of the primary reasons seems to be ‘principle-based litigation’ (read up Sandoz-Amgen case for more clarity on this topic). But it basically boils down the litigation costs, and more than costs, it is the timeline that’s killing most of the biosimilar pipeline. So, very capital ineffective so far because the litigation and the basic act for this litigation is not very clear and can be interpreted in various ways (Industry insiders call it the ‘time-climb’). US currently has only 12 biosimilars approved and 3 commercialized – 11 years after the Act came into place
  • Just to be clear, the approval timelines for biosimilar applications have come down to 10-12 months. However, almost all firms (and not just Indian firms) underestimated the amount of resources required to fight litigations in the US market. Given this ‘time-climb’ and the associated costs, the generic player wanting to launch a biosimilar will not want to cut price steeply to launch. Imagine this – when a chemical-based drug goes off patent and if there are more than 4 filers for that drug, the price post patent cliff is 80-90% lower in most cases. In case of biosimilar, the price cuts have not been more than 10-20%, which basically is not an incentive enough for the insurers in the market to push their payers down this route (And as cases of Humira and Remicade are proof, the original biologic player themselves shave off the price by 10-20% to prevent the biosimilar player to make any money). Of course, with ‘interchangeability’ a mandatory guideline for the US markets, the doctors are also not willing to take a risk on the biosimilar – resulting in very poor risk-reward for the generic player in biosimilars
  • So, does that mean Biosimilar potential is dead? Not necessarily. Let’s look at Germany for instance. Insurers incentivize hospitals and clinics to use cheaper options like biosimilars. The regulation in Europe around ‘interchangeability’ is fairly clear which means lesser litigations, which means the cost-to-market is lesser, which means there is a combination of price-cuts and market acceptance. Add to that, there are marquee players in Germany like KfH, the largest network of dialysis in Germany (30% of dialysis patients) who actively promoted the case of biosimilars (in this case, Epoetin). Therefore, the crucial play is lower regulatory hurdle (lesser litigations, not necessarily lesser stringency) -> lower time and cost of clearing the molecule -> cost benefits passed on to payers (forced by insurers and marquee players) -> rapid acceptance
  • So, what does this mean for Indian pharma? If I look down the list of biosimilar filers, most of them are global MNCs Pfizer, Amgen, Merck, Sandoz etc., who are huge multinationals with deep pockets. The cost of bringing a biosimilar to the market is estimated to be $100M-$200M (with the attendant risks listed above) vis-à-vis $1M – $5M in case of a chemical-based drug. Our Indian pharma players have had successes in the emerging markets (for example, Dr Reddy’s with the world’s first Rituximab biosimilar, Zydus Cadila’s Exemptia etc. and other players like Intas, Lupic, Cadila making headways in the emerging markets. However, Biocon is the only player with a US/EU presence (that too in partnership with Mylan) and Intas-Apotex partnership in this area is also promising (given Intas’ amazing presence and distribution) in Europe. But the real money is in the US – and unfortunately, not many players have even invested in the pipeline (Cipla exited the biosimilar pipeline in FY17 with a Rs. 2.5B write-off in Cipla Biotec, Cadila wanted to enter US with the biosimilar pegfilgrastim, but have stopped burning cash on this, Lupin is probably the only player having some pipeline in Enbrel (with EU approval) and Neulasta, Dr. Reddy’s targeting only emerging markets, Glenmark looking for a partner for bXolair, Sun Pharma has no investments in biosimiars, and neither does Natco (the only probably strategy seems to be ‘acquire some company once the regulations/BPCIA is more clear – else, can’t understand their decision-making)

The overall strategic point being – Indian players have consciously avoided the Biosimilar markets primarily because of complexity and aukaat reasons. So, the question is where is the next leg of new segment growth going to come from for these players over the next decade (ergo, higher valuations)?


Essential summary of the entire blog – No structural changes for easing of pricing pressures in the US market, no specialty pharma traction, no biosimilar traction, extreme competition in the India (and RoW) markets building up – so, why is everyone excited about pharma?

P.S: Hope it was worth the time of reading a long blog post. More importantly, as you can see, it’s not too difficult to cross the ‘hawabaazi’ barrier 🙂

P.P.S: Lupin bought Gavis Pharma for $880M. Gavis had a manufacturing facility (which would be Lupin’s first in the US), 66 products pending approval from the US’s Food and Drugs Administration (USFDA), and another 65 niche dosage forms in the pipeline. Impressive filings and seemed like a strategic buy. But what went wrong that Lupin had to write-off of the whole thing? Well, the US government’s increased scrutiny around opioids (drugs that use narcotics in their formulation) – and Gavis had a lot of valuable filings in Opioids which Lupin was hoping to leverage. Given the regulatory scrutiny, it made getting USFDA approvals for some of Gavis’s products more difficult and shrunk the opioids market as well. And hence the write-off. But why was Lupin so confident of pulling off acquisitions? Because Lupin bought Antara (from Oscient pharma in 2009 – with sales of $85M) and AllerNaze (nasal spray from Collegium pharma) – both of which were runaway successes – which obviously induced them to go for bigger and bigger bets. Thought will leave you with a story, than just ‘hawabaazi’.


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The Angst, The Truth and Everything-in-between


I like the word ‘angst’ – without going into the exact definition in Webster’s dictionary – conveys anger, frustration, desperation, exhaustion, anxiety, dread, worry etc. This one word – one word is all you need to know about what happened in March 2020 in the Indian markets (and world markets in general). Angst.

The Angst of Knowing: By now, you would have received letters from multiple PMS fund managers (either as their client or the very dependable Whatsapp forwards) talking about how they couldn’t see the havoc Corona would create in markets (and in life), and that they certainly understood the disease (having graduated from Whatsapp university) but underestimated the magnitude of the fall. In the same breath (as in, in the very next paragraph) will go on to tell you about how they think it’s only a 1-2 quarters disruption and that life will slowly get back to normal.

Of course, the discerning and erudite readers of this blog (haha!) will certainly notice a certain irony in those 2 paragraphs of almost any and every PMS letter you have read in March. But that’s their superpower – knowing, but not really knowing, and yet showcase that they actually know with sufficient disclaimers – and thereby the angst.

The Angst of Not Knowing: There are other sets of investors in the market where their stated position is ‘I don’t know’ / ‘I am not sure’ / ‘God knows what will happen’ which in summary can be termed on angst of not knowing. But why is it angst when you don’t know? Well, to start with, these ‘I am not sure’ investors are either in majority cash / majority invested. Mostly, majority cash. If you really don’t know – in the sense of ‘economy would go up or down’, ‘markets would go up or down’ – what would one truly do (keeping opinions aside)? The person would move to a 50:50 in terms of debt/cash : equity. That’s the true definition of ‘I am not sure which way things will go’.

So, the opinion (people take offense to the word ‘opinion’ these days – so, let’s say ‘stated position’) is ‘I don’t know’ but the action / positioning is ‘I think it will go to dogs’ (if you are mostly cash) or ‘I think we will recover well’ (if you are mostly invested). And to top it, all the ‘I am not sure’ investors are edgy – either to buy (so that they don’t miss the next upmove) or sell (so that they don’t miss the next downmove). And thereby the angst.

The Truth

Truth in this Kali yuga has multiple hues and meanings. For the purposes of this blog, let’s assume that Truth is something that can be stated with facts, but truth and facts are not the same. If that doesn’t cause you angst, I don’t know what will – because ‘you can’t handle the truth’ (A few good men reminder!)

The truth of knowing: I mean, and the truth is there for everyone to see (with a little Google search) of how some star and worshipped fund managers spoke about ‘leadership-wonderful-analytics-leaders in sectors are built on amazing culture-holding this for 15 years secular theme’ etc. have bailed out of financial services at the first sign of trouble. The truth then, irrespective of what their history and geography have said in the past, is almost all who spouted the above are ‘momentum investors’ and don’t need to be held at a pedestal. Every past interview is laced with hindsight bias and information asymmetry.

Everyone knows and talks about sector rotation these days. And the sector rotation broader opinion (from groups and twitterati) is to move from ‘the-red-hot-financial-services’ that has given folks stellar returns over the past few years to the ‘much-safer-pharma-because-you-know-Corona-and-healthcare spends will increase’ or ‘tailwind-chemical-and-magical-specialty-chemical’ because ‘China shift’ and ‘consumer-staples-is-expensive’. But you know, that’s not generally true – as in the reasons, not sector rotation per se. Sector rotation to these exact same sectors is as old as the hills as the image below depicts (between, somehow ‘rotation’ is a bit offensive these days – because it implies you have completely sold out on the previous theme which you had claimed in your 1001 ‘letters to the investor’ that this is the theme for 15-20 years (as true as it is that you bailed on this theme, like I said, ‘you can’t handle the truth’ and hence the new, taaza jargon is ‘sector tilting’ – implies…you know what it implies…))


The truth of not knowing: In these days of Internet and rampant Whatsapp groups, there is nothing that is not known. I mean, people have become expert epidemiologists in about 2 weeks, in what generally takes 10-15 years of hard work. So, what is there to not know?

– Somehow, folks seem to know exactly where Nifty will end up in 6 months to 1 year (6000-6500 on the bear side, and 12500 on the bull side), but cannot for the world of it, state about 4-5 stocks that will give them 25% CAGR returns with reasonably high probability in 3 years.

– Somehow, folks seem to know exactly what kind of stimulus and how much stimulus India should give and why FRBM is not relevant in this Covid era, but cannot for the world of it, know how to become anti-fragile with their own finances.

– Somehow, folks seem to know how human behavior is going to undergo radical change because of Covid (and thereby the resultant businesses and endless discussions around it), but cannot predict their own behavior in a bull / bear market the next day.

Deep down, we all think we know it. Like everybody knows everything. But in reality, the truth is nobody knows anything. Or is it…


One of the wisest investors that I have had the privilege to know, asked me recently, after I told him a long story/thesis about a particular stock, ‘kuch action kiya kya?’. On reflection, that’s a perfect statement to balance the angst and the truth.

– If you are convinced / positioned (for the ‘I am not sure’ investors) that market is going to dogs and Nifty to 6000-     6500 (or pick any figure below the current figure), have you acted accordingly? In fact, to take the                     Soros/Druckenmiller route, have you bought puts/shorted futures to that effect?

It is general human behavior that if you are in majority cash (means negative on the market), you’d kind of secretly hope that the situation deteriorates further and you can then come as knight in shining armor and scoop up a lot of businesses at dirt cheap prices.  You can in fact write a lot of eloquent and erudite pieces on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th order effects of any event (in life or in markets), especially a negative one. So, why not leverage this negativity and buy some puts / short the market for a small percentage of your portfolio to really drive a home run?

– Similarly, if you are convinced / positioned (for the ‘I am not sure’ investors) that market is going to back to near normal, FY21 is a washout for sure but most if not all businesses will be 70-80-90-100% there fully operational by FY22, have you acted accordingly? In fact, to take the Soros/Druckenmiller route, have you bought calls / long futures to that effect?

It is a completely abnormal human behavior to be optimistic in the face of such humanitarian crisis. Unlike the bear theory articles, you will hardly have any convincing arguments of why the market will go back up or why the businesses will go back to near-normal by FY22. The difficulty in such markets is not to find stocks which go up, but you want them to disproportionately go up – and that’s where the thinking gets stunted. If you are in the optimistic-bent camp of near-normal from FY22, and that bear markets are where stocks move 3% or 5% per day on the up (and missing out on certain days on some stocks will draw down your return significantly), then the key questions to ask are do you have a pipeline of stocks-at-certain-prices (realistic – not like HDFC bank at 200 rupees), why aren’t you buying stocks, shifting stocks and in general buying calls/long futures to drive a home run?


It’s not the opinion that counts – between the angst and the truth – because the opinions are too many, but it’s the action that counts. ‘How are you positioned’ / ‘What are you buying / selling’ is a much better indicator than ‘kya lagta hai market’. People can still lie, or tell you the partial truth, but that’s much better than an opinion and a narrative. Like the wise investor said, ‘kuch action kiya kya?’ – that’s the absolute truth in investing life.

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Variant Perception!

Of course, we all love Howard Marks. How does he define ‘variant perception’? – He defines it as follows – “To be able to take advantage of such divergences, you have to think in a way that departs from the consensus; you have to think different and better. This goal can be described as “second-level thinking” or “variant perception.”” There is no variant perception in liking Howard Marks.

However, in the Indian markets, we all love to abuse, disabuse, misabuse and tetra-abuse any good concept. In Indian markets then, what is variant perception? In Indian markets, ‘variant perception’ is any perception variant that makes money. If it makes money, you can retrospectively determine that you had a variant perception and write detailed articles about it (or make podcasts, because that’s the fancy these days). If it doesn’t make money, well, nobody cares about your any perception, much less the variant perception.

If it makes money, your variant perception can be called coffee can (literally don’t know what this phrase means), else it will be trash can. For example, you can argue that you bought a stock (say, Merck or Abbott) at 40PE and your variant perception is (apart from all the fancy thesis which spans atleast 15 slides, if not 30) that it will go to 70PE (because, MNC something, something). If it makes money (like it has), people will call you a visionary. If it doesn’t, people are anyway ready to sell at 20% from top. If it’s a highly liquid stock, people will not even bother calling the bullshit on you. The variant perception being, ‘liquid hai to acha hai, chala to returns, nahi chala to exit’.

Anyway, with this being the case, sharing some of the ‘variant perception’ in 2019 for some of the stocks that I bought/hold (none of the stocks are a recommendation – it’s almost a guarantee that you will lose money on all my stocks mentioned below – so don’t try to buy them and you can’t short them because none are in F&O. So, please definitely consult your advisor before acting on any of the below. I am NOT a registered investment advisor). Most of the insights below are from multiple discussions with my friend ‘O’ – in that sense, they are our joint insights and I can’t claim sole credit for any of these (and hence ‘we’ reference below):

1) Alkyl Amines: The biggest consensus pick of 2019 in the mid/small cap space. The general thesis around this is that the management is fabulous, they are doing large capex (of Rs. 100 cr every year) after a very long time, they got into methyl amines (traditionally being the stronghold of their oligopoly competition ‘Balaji Amines’) and grabbing market share, large-ish capex from their customer base of pharma and agrochem etc. Of course, with continuous growth in earnings quarter on quarter, the frenzy feeds itself. We bought it much before this insight because of the above, but what really kicked in the adding to the position this year is the ‘variant perception’.

So, what’s really the variant perception in it? The insight around Acetonitrile – everybody wonders that Acetonitrile prices are volatile and we need to contact somebody to know the price of acetonitrile etc. But do you really know that this is a counter-auto-cyclical thingy? As in, if the auto cycle slows down, acetonitrile prices go up. In that sense, you can play this theme as a counter-cyclical to Auto slowdown. But why is this really so? This is because of the following:

  • In the acrylonitrile and acetonitrile relationship, acrylonitrile is the economic driver primarily due to storage constraints as well. Approximately fifteen gallons of acetonitrile are produced for every 270 gallons of acrylonitrile; if the producer doesn’t have room to store the acrylonitrile, production of acetonitrile is reduced. This creates an inverse pricing relationship.
  • So, what drives the acrylonitrile demand? The primary downstream consumer for acrylonitrile is ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene) resins. ABS is used to produce polymer shells used in products such as luggage and canoes. But, its primary use is for shock absorbing materials like automotive bumpers. Because there is typically a greater demand for vehicles compared to luggage and canoes, auto production has a greater impact on acrylonitrile and acetonitrile availability.
  • Therefore, auto cycle slowdown -> lower acrylonitrile production -> storage constraints kick in and oligopoly structure in this market -> lower acetonitrile production -> constant demand for acetonitrile -> higher prices for acetonitrile

Of course, the price has gone up because of stellar earnings, no less contributed by acetonitrile prices. If auto cycle picks up in FY21, expect acetonitrile prices to go down. Expected anywhere between 130-150 cr PAT in FY20 and FY21.

2) Swiss Glascoat (or HLE Glascoat as it is called nowadays): Given these days of high visibility to high liquid, large cap stocks, obviously no one cares about low liquid and small cap stocks. So, what does HLE Glascoat do? HLE Glascoat Equipments specializes in two distinct segments: 1) design and manufacturing of carbon steel glass lined equipment [GLE] (reactors, receivers / storage tanks, columns, valves, pipes & fittings) with 25-30% market share (majority being held by GMM) and 2) ANFD/RVD centrifuges (> 50% market share).

If you ignore the jargon, these are products are sold to Pharmaceutical / API, Specialty Chemicals, Dyes/ Colours, Agro Chemicals, Food Processing and allied industries. Of course, China tailwinds is an integral part to the investing thesis goes without saying. Essentially, an Oligopoly business (GMM being its main competitor, currently at 50PE) with a visible China shift resulting in strong tailwinds in a relatively margin-proof capital goods equipment company serving this tailwind of large ongoing capex in the chemical, pharma and agrochemical space is the general thesis for investing in HLE.

So, what’s the variant perception in this?

  • First of all, low liquid and small cap itself is death these days
  • Swiss Glascoat was run by Mr. Sudarshan Amin and due to succession issues, was sold to HLE Engineers. Swiss is the 2nd largest player in GLE (with 25-30% market share), but HLE is a market leader in centrifuges (ANFD/RVD). Post NCLT approvals in October, the merged entity financials would start being reflected from Q2 FY20. With the increase in capex by all its customers (chemical, agrochem and pharma) , our estimate was that – the tri-criteria of lower sales, lower margins, lower multiple (due to being the 2nd largest player in one of the segments) and a de-motivated management will move to higher sales, higher margins (oligopoly, increasing demand, classic cap goods of higher prices), aggressive and SITG management and higher multiple (being the market leader in one of the segments)
  • So, what if all this capex stops all of a sudden? Of course, it can stop anytime. But here’s where our ‘2nd level variant perception’ comes in (haha, when price of the stock goes up, all this can be said – advantages galore! for such ‘variant perceptions’ like I said). NGT approvals. NGT (National Green Tribunal) goes around the country and keeps raising one issue or another. Environmental clearances are not easy to come by, more so because of NGT. Here’s the real deal – China shift is not slowing down, environmental clearances have not completely stopped, but the clearances are coming in slowly and steadily – which is an amazing advantage to players like HLE – because the growth (of ~15% in sales) will continue for 2-3 years atleast instead of a single year of exponential growth (40%). Market has that much more time to stabilize and understand prospects than just move it up and kill on craziness

We expect SGEL (GLE) to clock a 30% CAGR growth for the next 2-3 years with increasing margins (~op margins of 15% are achievable). and expect HLE Engineers (ANFD/RVD) to clock a 15% CAGR growth for the next 2-3 years with increasing margins. We expect a combined turnover of ~500 cr in FY21/FY22) and expect about 45-50 cr PAT in FY21 and 55-60 cr PAT in FY22

3) Too long a post already I think (or in reality, those were the set of ‘variant perception’ winners in 2019). The other substantial 2 bets that we added to existing holdings in 2019 are Hikal (price didn’t go up, it actually went down by 30%, so nobody cares about our variant perception and no use writing thesis about it on the blog) and Axtel Industries (price didn’t go anywhere and yet again nobody cares about our variant perception and hence no details – but in general, low liquid, small cap, cap goods, aggressive management, food industry, large MNC clients, substantial exports traction is the general overview. If price moves in 2020, I will come back to write our ‘variant’ perception’ on this one).

4) There were multiple small positions (2-3%) in 2019 which worked out quite well / didn’t go nowhere – Suven, JM Fin etc. But they don’t affect the overall portfolio by much given their position sizes. So, really, who cares.

Blogposts (or podcasts these days) are never complete without general market gyaan, about which, like literally, nobody cares. But hey, we have come this far, so why not be indulgent in the final days of the decade. It’s an increasingly tough market with substantial flows into the market (due to Nifty not correcting perception and obviously TINA followed by FOMO). I expect FY20 to be even tougher because we are not a leveraged market at all post the NBFC crisis and therefore, very few players will go out of the market. I don’t expect the broader midcap and smallcap to bounce back (except select stocks) because of some weird idea called mean reversion (mean reversion can take years and not just because you had a tough last 2-3 years). There is a substantial, but little spoken about fact that has emerged in 2019 around export data for multiple stocks being shared widely (from authentic and not-so-authentic data sources) – it’s a bit of weird thing going on in the 2019 market because everybody thinks that they are the only ones who know about this data, and hence don’t talk about it in WA groups- but almost everybody knows about it these days so it’s become a commodity. A general pointer being, if anybody is pitching you a long forgotten idea and/or some sudden bullishness in an existing idea after 16th of every month, you can safely assume that good export data has been released, and people are attaching their own thesis (without quoting export data) to look like a visionary once the quarter results are out. Of course, we all take a good idea too far in India and therefore, this will come back to bite us very badly some day.

The End. Cheers to 2019. End of a decade (yes, for me 2020 is the start of a new decade – the number literally is a visionary year number). And what a decade it’s been in financial markets and personal net worths! The world has been kind in terms of bestowing so many fantastic and close friends in the past decade whom I can call upon for advise at any point in time – thank you one and all – and in no particular order – Om, Anant, Tirumal, Vivek, Dhruvesh, Ankit, Rahul, Dhwanil, Viraj, Prabhakar, Gordon, Puneet, Saurabh, Digant, Ashwini, Siddharth, Nooresh, Sandeep, Donald, Alokeji, Jagvir, Ayush, Deepak, Prashanth, Neeraj, Tejus, Rohit, Rajat, Bhagwan, Jatin, Abhimanyu, Anand, Dhaval and many more – my life and knowledge is 10x richer because of all of you. Our basis of friendship is investing, but we have shared many other aspects of life that all of this investing is now a side-show. Thank you one and all. It’s been my privilege.

Here’s to welcoming the next big decade (whatever that means!).

P.S: Best books read in 2019: Factfulness, Alchemy, Modern Monopolies, Anti-fragile (re-read), Man for all markets (re-read)

P.P.S: Best movies in 2019: Unfortunately, 2019 was not a rich set in Hindi/English stable. Telugu was outstanding. Andhadhun (Hindi), Uri (Hindi), Gully Boy (Hindi), Avengers: The End Game (English), Knives Out (English), Ford vs Ferrari (English), Agent Sai Srinivas Athreya (Telugu), Oh Baby (Telugu), Brochevarevarura (Telugu), Gang Leader (Telugu), Evaru (Telugu), Jersey (Telugu), Sye Ra (Telugu), C/o Kancharlapalem (Telugu), Goodachari (Telugu)

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Sell when something something…

An inordinate amount of material exists on ‘what to buy’, ‘when to buy’, ‘how to buy’ etc. but very little material is written on ‘when/how/what to sell’. Research indicates (rather ‘pro-forma’ research or in plain English, ‘completely made-up’ research) indicates that the act of Selling rather than buying generates most of the returns (unless of course you are the chosen and select few to only buy HDFC Bank, Asian Paints in your portfolio for a long time).

Of course, this is not a blog post on ‘when/how/what to sell’. This blogpost is about the reasons often quoted on ‘when/how/what to sell’.

1) ‘Sell when your thesis is wrong’: This is the mother (in these income tax days, we can also say grandfather) of all reasons. The first reason that’s quoted in most articles – from fool.com to hedge fund letters.
Here’s what’s wrong with it. Our thesis are generally partially and most times completely bull and very very flaky. They are either earnings momentum driven or price driven. We are of the firm belief that if the prices of the stocks we buy go up, then our thesis is right. Else, management something something. Many examples that come flying to land on this point.

• Avanti Feeds was bought on ‘shrimp expansion/global market share gaining/TUF investing’ etc. The real returns of Avanti Feeds came in because raw material prices dropped precipitously and investors extrapolated that to infinity. The thesis of ‘shrimp expansion/global market share gaining/TUF investing’ still holds true, but is anyone interested in buying Avanti Feeds now? Not really.
• All chemical stories – from Excel Industries to Excel Crop Care to Vinati/Aarti (nowadays). Our thesis is right as long as the price is moving up and to the right. Once the price hits a 20% circuit down, our thesis falls off and we sell (or more critically, we hold and become a long term investor)
• All NBFCs. ‘ours is a credit-hungry nation, you know’, ‘millenial something something’. Large opportunity. Earnings momentum slows / price drops – all of this thesis is out of the window. ‘Earnings momentum’ is the justification given for others. For now. Till the price drops or momentum slows that is.
• Some classic stories – Mayur Uniquoters, Poly Medicure, PI Industries (till the price moved up recently) – some fantastic managements, large opportunity. Every thesis stays. But if the price doesn’t move up, we exit
• Graphite stocks. Haha. The next big commodity. Needle coke. Electric cars. Something something.

And many others. I am sure the market of Jan 2018 – Aug 2018 has given enough experience to know most of our returns have been lucky (80%) and thesis driven (20%). So this ‘sell when your thesis is wrong’ is so nuts – it confounds me.

2) ‘Sell when you find a better idea’ – We are under so many notions of our investing prowess, there is no limit to our ignorance. What’s the basis for a better idea? What constitutes a better idea? Do we even know and understand our current portfolio stocks enough to determine what a ‘better idea’ is? (see point 1). A ‘better idea’ for most of us means that ‘my stock is stagnant, that stock can give me better returns as the price is/may move up more than mine’. We all laugh at ‘bhala, uska kameez mere kameez se safed kaise’. We do this everyday.

All of us make mistakes (well, again pro-forma/completely made-up research indicates Buffett has only 60% hit ratio, so we are mere mortals). But this ‘better idea; concept is drilled into our heads (remember, ‘move your portfolio quality upwards in every market’). Portfolio quality is a sign of the times. Say, consumer stocks were and are of high quality (cashflows, ‘large opportunity’, good dividend payouts, something something…which indicates quality). But if you had invested in ‘consumer stocks’ in 2002-2008, your neighbor would have laughed so hard at you, even ex-LS MP couldn’t match it if she tried. If you have invested in capital goods in 2013-2018, well, my neighbours are still laughing at me. And evidence indicates most of our top quality capital goods companies are not very cyclical as they are made out to be.
So, what is a better idea? Flawed again.

3) ‘Sell when you need to rebalance your portfolio’: Hahaha! Rebalance, you said? You mean, I need to sell Vinati Organics and Aarti Industries which are going great guns and constitute 30% of my portfolio to invest in what? Capital goods? NBFCs? Didn’t you see there were a lot of defaults in NBFCs? Haven’t you heard the capex cycle will not take off for the next 2-3 years given most of our Banks (shh..PSBs) are under water? You say NMDC which is cheap, great dividend yield, lowest cost producer and something something? Are you nuts – haven’t you heard that the Govt. is wiping all the cash clean from all PSBs? I don’t want to take any such risks. Aarti/Vinati for life.

Rebalance it seems. This is like Bangladesh cricket team being called Tigers. Absolute bonkers you are. I am happy with my 30% of portfolio – who knows – can become like RJ’s CRISIL and Titan. Haven’t you heard of the maxim…only 2-4 stocks in your lifetime will give pushto-pushto returns? Rebalance my portfolio it seems. Rebalance your life dude.

4) ‘Sell when you need the money’: One of the better reasons to sell actually. The hitch though is, outside of emergencies, I need money all the time man! I have a Facebook account and an Instagram account. I can’t post photos about eating vada-pav at Agarwal-ji’s dabba. 2 foreign vacations a year, 1 new mobile a year. I also hear there is a real estate boom that’s about to take off magically in many parts of India – (don’t ask why man…still you ask..ok ok…demographics, more nuclear families, higher employment by selling samosas, something something). So, I need money all the time.

But you say opportunity cost? Now, what is this bloody thing called ‘opportunity cost’. Do we even know and understand what’s opportunity cost? Well, opportunity cost is 15% because historically Indian stock markets have given these returns..because something something. Well, you change the start period and end period, and voila, that can become 5% returns. Every asset class – gold, land, real estate, stocks, bonds – irrespective of asset class – you can change the start period and end period and one can argue endlessly about which asset class generates more returns.

I am Stanley Druckenmiller-like you say? I can invest and timely shift my portfolios across asset classes you say? Maybe ‘arts & painting’ is a higher opportunity cost bet you say? Of course. So, why do you need money for anything at all? Also, you should be on Twitter – there are many Stanley Druckenmillers out there who can get in the bottom, and get out at the top..in every single asset class…asset class no bar. You will need to hit the bar everytime you read their tweets.

5) ‘If the stock is overvalued, then one needs to sell’: If point 1 is grandfather, point 5 is grandmother (also can be mother sister, if you get the drift). First of all, what is overvalued?

• Is Symphony and Page at 100PE over-valued? Of course, you’d say. One must be crazy to buy even consumer stories at 100PE. Why? See their price action over the last couple of years.
• Is DMart over-valued at 80PE? Are you kidding? Did you see their earnings momentum? We are still in the infancy of the retail boom for lower capital people and look at demographics something something. But but, Walmart (‘every day low prices since 1975’ – yes that one!) had earnings growth for 25 years and stock hasn’t moved by much because of over-valuation back in the day, you say? Ah. Oh. Well, America old country, Trump, Bush, you know.
• Is Bajaj Finance at 100PE over-valued? Of course, not. Are you out of your mind? Look at the earnings growth. Look at Sanjiv Bajaj’s profile pic and prophetic statements around data science, data lake and data ocean. Look at the beauty of the balance sheet. Look at something something. Look at the earnings momentum and with a 30% growth (nah, let’s make that 40% because according to pro-forma research, millennials something something, with increased per capital something something, the pace of credit will only accelerate) over next 5 years, it is quoting at just 18.59PE. One must be nuts selling Bajaj Finance at 100PE.
• Is Aarti Industries/Vinati Organics overvalued at 35-40PE? Is Divis Laboratories overvalued at 50PE? Man, you are not following me. I just justified 80-100PE above. And now you are asking me about a cheaper PE. Follow me, listen to me. Carefully. These are the next big stocks – (why? because China something something) – they will get into Index. I will buy a Pali hill bungalow by selling these shares and then give an interview 10 years later regretting selling these shares. Have the vision to buy, courage to hold and goti to not sell etc.
• All these growth stocks give ‘plenty of time’ to exit, you know. One quarter bad result, I will trim. Once the earning momentum slows for 2 quarters, then I will exit. Plenty of time. Well, ask Pantaloon. Also, too many behavioral problems with that. Also, convergence of this idea has bad implications.

Every bull market, you’ll hear ‘zyaada khareedna tha’, ‘should have concentrated more’. Every bear market, you’ll hear ‘should have sold at the top’ etc. Given this post is about selling, and every investor has become wise post this bear market – these days, every investor is like ‘bech dunga, 15-20% neeche from top is my stop loss, will completely sell, will never make the mistake of holding on if it corrects by more than 15-20% etc. something something so that I protect my returns’. As if, every other investor is not thinking the same (and its race to the bottom). But boss, I just told you I am a smart investor..not like the retail something panic something dumb investor.

Yes dude. You are Stanley Druckenmiller. You should definitely be on Twitter.

P.S: Summary: Sab bhaav ke khiladi hai. Courtesy: Manu Manek. Unless of course, you are one of the select few to invest in HDFC Bank/Asian Paints for double-digit years (base rate of such stocks is really low) and have held them tight. Or more attractively, you were someone who invested Rs.10,000 in Wipro in 1980 and held on to become multi-crorepati in something something years (I was not even born then, so I am not that lucky).


Stock Story – Revisited

Sometimes, or maybe most times, you need to revisit history and see how different you saw it vs how it actually turned out.

So is the case with stock analysis and our ‘creations’ and ‘fantasies’. ISGEC being one of them. I wrote about ISGEC here – https://kiraninvestsandlearns.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/isgec_stock-story1.pdf back in January 2015 with all kinds of bold statements and how the market was wrong.

Haha. Well, let’s see.

Marketcap in January 2015: 4100 cr

Marketcap in April 2019: 4100 cr

4+ years of 0 returns on the money one invested in the stock. Let’s take it slow, else it will hurt too much (innuendo alert!) – quotes from the pdf link above:

1) “The traction in its entire business is reasonably good with strong demand from exports and potential revival of domestic economy” – The order book then was 4000 cr. The order book (as of Dec’18) is 8275 cr. True story. Order book doubled, but no change in marketcap. And we assume order book drives marketcap most of the time.

2) “some segments of ISGEC had large under-utilized capacities and improving business climate can thereby lead reasonable operational leverage” – 

Sales in FY15: 3900 cr, Sales in FY18: 3800 cr.

PAT in FY15: 117 cr, PAT in FY18: 157 cr

No change in market cap.

3) “Massive Operating Leverage still to come” – ROFL and offered with no comment!

4) “Consolidated results will have a kicker from:  Saraswati Sugar Mills  ISGEC – Hitachi Zosen JV (51:49)“: Sugar…well being Sugar didn’t end sweet. IHZL faced a massive Oil&Gas headwind (oil prices have dipped or gone nowhere in the last 4 years) and never scaled up to its potential due to cutback in investments.

5) “The fruits of the debottlenecking task taken by the new government may
start to show up anytime in the next 1-2 years. All in all, the opportunities from domestic market revival are quite big. With increase in demand, comes an increase in margins. On a massive sales base, even a 1% uptick in operating margins can give a
huge kicker to net profits” – I was just flying to the moon, wasn’t I? That’s what they say…aim for the stars and atleast reach the moon or something. Shahrukh Khan would be proud to take me onboard his company, Dreamz Unlimited.

6) “ISGEC Hitachi Zosen JV (We think this aspect is severely under-estimated by the markets)” – Haha, not really. Markets, as they mostly are, right this time.

6) I would say that this take the cherry on the piece of cake. “Investors investing at these levels might incur some opportunity cost. But management capability along with operating leverage makes this an attractive buy for any investor thinking 3-5 years” – I mean, really? What was I thinking? I ate the pudding alright. Massive opportunity cost. Attractive buy for 3-5 years view? This was a worse joke than RCB’s tag line of ‘ee sala cup namde’ (this time the cup is ours).  What a prediction sirjee 🙂

Summary being:

a) It’s not just the growth of the order book, but composition of the order book that determines marketcap (as Market sees the future)

b) Even if you are right on order book, profits etc., Market’s mood may change and never give you the multiple you think it deserves

c) Don’t predict massive upturns or downturns.

d) Don’t depend on government.

e) Stop predicting in general, or altogether.

f) Stop writing stock stories. I mean, embarrassing really.

The End.


Quick Lessons from 2018

Given the nature of the season and with no reason, here are the quick lessons from 2018:

a) The Dumb Speculator: I used to think this as a very apocryphal story and always used to chuckle how silly the story is:

“Ben Graham told a story forty years ago that illustrates why investment professionals behave as they do. An oil prospector, moving to his heavenly reward, was met by St. Peter with bad news. “You’re qualified for residence,” said St. Peter, “but, as you can see, the compound reserved for oil men is packed. There’s no way to squeeze you in.” After thinking a moment, the prospector asked if he might say just four words to the present occupants. That seemed harmless to St. Peter, so the prospector cupped his hands and yelled, “Oil discovered in hell.” Immediately, the gate to the compound opened and all of the oil men marched out to head for the nether regions. Impressed, St. Peter invited the prospector to move in and make himself comfortable. The prospector paused. “No,” he said, “I think I’ll go along with the rest of the boys. There might be some truth to that rumor after all.”

Well, I am chuckling no more. Truer than ever, I believed the entire fantasy for one story in 2018 and had to sell 30% from the top instead of selling near the top. I had all justifications and calculations for why the top was ‘THE top’ given it was ridiculously overpriced, but then I thought, why not…maybe there is truth to all those fantasies after all. Ultimately, it boils down to whether you clicked ‘Buy’/’Sell’ than all the million justifications and calculations you do within your head.

b) The Aggressive Investor: I almost always take concentrated positions (8-10% atleast) and there was this one concall from a capital goods company that I thought had cracked it all. Of course, I built a serious position in it (8%) – justified with ‘backed with conviction’, ‘motivated management’, ‘diversified revenue’, ‘normally valued’ etc.

Obviously, not just me but the entire market thought that the company had cracked it all. And then disappointment. The position corrected 50% and now is 40% below my buying price. The market – as simple as it sounds – doesn’t care about your conviction or management stories. It cares about earnings and the earnings disappointed big time.

c) The Sheepish Investor: Given the burns of the aggressive position, I course corrected and then said to myself – maybe, just maybe this isn’t a market to build concentrated positions and went the other way…building ‘2%-3%’ positions in 4-5 stocks. As such, there is no fault in building 2-3% positions. However, when your inherent investing nature is to think and build concentrated positions, these small positions are the first ones to be cut out off the portfolio when you have conviction in other stocks where you can build a position.

So, unless these small positions turn out to be massive multi-baggers (atleast 4-5x), they tend to be a waste of time and energy given there is neither conviction nor position to sustain and eventually reap those returns.

d) Take the Gains and Bear the Losses: After a longish period of 6 years, I took substantial money off the table in a number of stocks. Was in 20-25% cash most of the year. And that enabled me to bear losses from a few stocks (mostly the 2-4% positions).

Given that one makes the biggest mistakes in bull markets (greed, staying on till the last minute or beyond for max gains, thinking you can ride momentum, inability to find ideas and yet find it painful to sit on more than 25% cash etc.), taking those losses is still painful. One can find solace that some of these losses will be offset against gains and thereby tax incidence will be lower – but that’s a false solace that we try to find comfort in. The real truth of making mistakes lurks in the background (and really, no way to get around the fact of making mistakes, other than try to reduce incidence).

e) Saying Thank You: So many family and friends to say Thank You to. Family has no option but to stick to you through thick and thin, but friends have zero obligation to bear all the mindless chatter. Thank You to multiple friends – O, V, C, A, D, V. Each one of those names have taught me more than I can ever learn through a myriad books and mistakes. So, Thank You. I broke even this year (0% returns basically on the portfolio) and largely thanks to all of you and your sagely advice (kudos to O though, who has been a rock).

f) Saying One more Thank You: One landmark reached and crossed in my professional career of Management Consulting as well (became a Principal at my Firm). I absolutely love Consulting and Investing, and thankful to God that he has given me opportunities in both these fields to strive and ability to try to excel (excelling or not is a different matter). The rush that I get in the first week of any client situation (this year was in Singapore) and the rush to find an unique angle (s) to stocks which the market might have missed is something that can’t be explained, and only can be experienced.

Investing as such is complex, but when compared to vagaries of Life itself (in terms of health, happiness, laughter, family, friends, tears, sickness and death), Investing is probably the simplest of the lot. The worst you can do is 7% in a FD. The major lesson of 2018 is to not fret a lot and just live life being aware of mortality.

So, Thank You for this opportunity – it’s been a pleasure to see you off 2018. Welcome 2019. Let the fun and frolic begin.

P.S: Best books read this year – ‘How I lost a Million Dollars’, ‘Anti-fragile’ (again), ‘Factfulness’, ‘The Art of Learning’ (again), ‘A man for all markets’, ‘Letters from a Stoic’, ‘Markets Never Forget, but People Do’ are a few of them.


Long time, no see!

It’s been a long time, close to 2.5 years since a post was written on this blog. Anyhoo.

Nobody has a doubt these days that it’s a bull market. Whether it’s in the mature bull market stage or the euphoric bull market stage, only time will tell (my personal opinion being, still in mature bull market stage). On the investing scale of Novice to Professional, am still on the Novice stage, so pardon my conclusions/prognosis in my first extended bull market:

a) Re-rating mania: Lesser and lesser percentage of folks want to talk about business economics and earnings. More and more of them want to bet on re-rating – ‘arey boss, sabko pata hai re-ratings se hi paisa jaldi banta hai’. Letting the tape decide (as re-rating is entirely that) your investing actions is a bit fraught with danger (unless of course you are a trader – of whom I have many good friends – and their risk management, trade management is top notch). But hey, all of us have made good money in the past few years only on re-rating, very few on real earnings growth – so yeah – don’t complain.

b) Books: I have read some stellar books in the past few years – and in no particular order – ‘Markets don’t forget, people do’, ‘The Bull’, ‘Lessons from History’, ‘Sapiens’, ‘Short history of financial euphoria’ etc. and it’s been enlightening to say the least. What I am surprised by, is this access to information is so easy these days. If I can take you back to 1990s, I could not get a Tinkle easily and today, we get the best of the books with a single click. What this does to investors/traders knowledge and psychology today in a market is beyond comprehension – given that this investing/trading in India (and mostly abroad) – was a closed circle phenomenon. I am not talking of the incessant ‘guile of insights’ that float around in various Whatsapp groups where you can’t remember what someone posted 1 day ago, much less a month ago. This knowledge of these books – distilled wisdom really – has had a profound impact on my thinking, and hopefully many other thousands of investors who have entered the bull market in the last few years. Greed and fear will continue – as it has for thousands of years – but I am kind of expecting that the % of people (as a total of investing population) who will get hammered will be much reduced. Learnings will be faster. Whipsaws will be faster. Opportunities will be lesser.

c) 3 pillars: If you believe that 3 pillars will continue to stay – capitalism, entrepreneurship and democracy – for any country/industry, I believe that one can make money in the long term. Entry price is definitely a determinant of stellar returns, but these 3 pillars are more important to make steady returns over the long term (better than fixed deposit, that is).

d) SIP mania: The whole mania around SIPs will continue for much longer than people think. We many move across sectors, small/mid to large caps etc., but TINA or no TINA, these SIPs will continue (the avg. or the median SIP amount has not changed by much in the last decade – but incomes have gone up – and therefore the % SIP amount does not pinch anymore for other discretionary or big budget items). I think it will take a massive crash, and not a demonetization or a 2011 crash to take these people out of the market.

e) On the investing front, I only bought a couple of stocks in the last year as I couldn’t find much else/could not understand some sectors. I don’t believe markets are crazily valued in some sectors at this stage. As I said earlier, I don’t believe we are in the euphoric stage yet.

And, in conclusion, I believe what I wrote in Sep 2014 (This time it’s different) still holds true, especially this part –

The fallacy of selling 20% below the top: Which brings me to my next and favorite topic. Nobody wants to leave the party that is going on. Value investors are very famous and take great pride in laughing at the stupid statement of former executive of Citibank saying “”As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.” We laugh and laugh at that stupidity. We quote Buffett. We quote Munger. Why, these days, we have become more exotic and even quote Daniel Kahneman and his super book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’. But almost no-one wants to exit the party. These days, the hypothesis is even better. These days, investors say that ‘let the market reach the top and then correct…we’ll all get out 15%-20% from the top’. Let me explain this fallacy through a famous picture:


That’s the chart of the IT bubble – starting from 1996, all the way till 2001. All those investors who say ‘let the market reach the top and then correct……’, would they get out at all the points marked ‘Red’ in color – then they would have missed all the returns. ALl of the them plan to get out at the ‘Orange’ market – how would they know in advance? Conversely, in reality, wouldn’t most investors get out at all the points marked ‘Green’ in color – throwing in the towel? Every investor worth his salt wants to get out at the point marked in ‘Orange’. How many can do it? I seriously doubt if it would be in high single digits.

Then again, the lure and the logic is too irresistible. Combine that fallacious logic of immediately getting out at the right moment with your neighbor (rather, twitter/whatsapp friends) making more money than you everyday – and you have got a dynamite waiting to blow up. We all want to dance till the last minute, irrespective of how many times we read Buffett pleading ‘the clock has no hands’.

Let’s enjoy the bull market till it lasts. I am still cautiously optimistically bullish – or whatever hell that means.


Learnings from Recent History

‘Recent History’ – an oxymoron, as history is typically measured in decades if not more.

However, given that most PMS funds, hedge funds and all kinds of investors proclaiming their vision and CAGR all over the place by choosing a very convenient 2009-2011 start dates/years to calculate their CAGR, I think ‘recent history’ would serve as a good reminder for all of us that mortality (in investing, as in life) is a good idea to revisit now and then.

Take a look at this snapshot and spend some time reading through the image:


An emerging STAR fund. Or you can call it by any other name. Portfolio as of Jan 2008. The name of ICICI is not even relevant here, as most mid-cap and small cap funds (and other funds masquerading as value funds) ended up in a similar fate in the great crash of 2008.

Look at the holdings of this fund in detail and ponder. Ponder for a moment, and especially on these lines:

a) The holdings in the portfolio were THE emerging names – with ‘quality’, ‘management integrity’, ‘scale of opportunity’ written all over them – back in 2008. Like we have many names now. With all three adjectives being attached to many of the names.

b) Access to Investing wisdom is not new (already available in 2008). Even the fund managers of ICICI STAR fund had access to a lot of investing books and Buffett’s letters.

c) Scuttlebutt is not new. Fund managers have had access to managements for as long as one can remember.

d) Access to networking is not new. Fund managers have always been widely networked. Only that networking has got more democratic because of technology (and especially whatsapp). Previously, there might have been panics in bursts. These days, there is a panic every day because of costless distribution of any written word.

d) Asset heavy businesses got massacred. Oh, well. We “know” about this now – we never invest in asset heavy businesses, right? Wait till the replacement cost bull market takes over.

d) Asset light businesses also got massacred. Either because the management turned out to be fraud or their industry turned out to be irrelevant.

e) What you don’t see in the snapshot is the price multiples one might have paid for those businesses. Given that ‘infra’ was all the rage back then, the P/E multiples were also high, pretty much with similar explanations that we are attributing to some sectors these days.

There are many more points to ponder just by looking at this image, which is basically a snapshot of the investing theme/rage back then.

Now ponder:

i) Why do you think your portfolio of 2015 is not like the STAR fund portfolio of ICICI of 2008?

ii) What makes you ultra-confident (dare I say, cocky)? [I pretty much assume all of us are going to say ‘nope’ to i) above]

iii) What are the steps one might want to take/plug your learnings to not repeat i) and ii) above? [Hint: Whatsapp/Investing forums is definitely not the answer]

George Bernard Shaw made an epic statement when he said – “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history”. The history of markets is replete with same mistakes repeated over and over again, each time with a different twist (mostly unimaginable/black swan).

Given the proliferation and access to information, let us atleast attempt to learn from history this time? I started with an oxymoron, and I think I ended with one 🙂

P.S: Post inspired by a conversation with a friend who chooses to be anonymous, but is bloody brilliant.

P.P.S: If you think ICICI STAR fund didn’t really tickle your senses, and you are craving for more, here is a more elaborate chart on an assortment of businesses – more varieties than you can find in a Walmart store – quality, scale of opportunity, management integrity, vision, mission, goal, rags-to-riches, first generation promoter – choose your poison – and the current market value is not even 1/10th of what it was.


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Confusion. And then Chaos.

I admit. This is my first bull market with a substantial percentage of networth in equities. Maybe that’s why there is a lot of confusion in this chaos.

a) Prices are going up faster than you can say ‘What’s the EPS’? (Cashflow is, let’s just say, not on anybody’s mind right now). Folks are bidding up known stories, and more so the unknown. The more unknown, the better. The more known, the worse. Everybody is out there to unearth hidden diamonds, even from stones who haven’t reported profits in years. There is always an angle in the bull market.

b) Markets always rhyme, never repeat. We all ‘know’ how this will end. What we don’t know is when it will end. As they say, being too early is as good as being wrong. So, of course, we can quote Buffett for every single investing phenomenon and bring up Munger for every bit of behavioral science. We are too knowledge-able these days. Adding to the confusion. Now, there are always two angles to the story. And then there is quality. ‘Margin of Safety’, you say. Can you just hold this glass of water for me, while I laugh the shit out of you?

c) The advent of instant message technology (read: whatsapp) along with its widespread usage has obviously made this bull market different from the others. There is nothing that you write anywhere – and I mean, anywhere – that will not go viral. You actually have to expect that it will go viral. Even if it’s your colleague who has worked on common investing stories. Tremendous social proof at play. You send one message. I will send it to someone else to verify if what you said was true. And then it goes on and on, till you get back the message yourself. Not far from reality. Couple of weeks back, someone forwarded me a set of insights/questions that were supposed to be secretive (with an added masala of ‘bilkul kisi ko mat bol’). In about 4 hours, I got that message from 4 other folks and lo and behold, it was also on a forum. Social proof out of the window. This is social incest.

d) And obviously, because of all the above, the resultant price moves in stories are also very swift (upwards/downwards). But hey, you keep saying “volatility is your friend”. LOL. I meant that only if I had cash to invest. Not when I am fully invested like now.

e) A special phenomenon of this bull market, along with instant messages/whatsapp, is scuttlebutt. Fisher, who propagated scuttlebutt would probably be very happy (or be turning in his grave) because of the number of people who do scuttlebutt these days. And the kind of scuttlebutt. And the type of scuttlebutt. And how they tie in one shop/one retailer/one distributor’s conclusion to the entire story and weave a fantastic hypothesis which cannot be refuted. The butt has been scuttled in so much variety over the past 2-3 years, that it would put Arvind Kejriwal’s political gimmicks to shame.

f) These days, any and every story should atleast be 20 P/E. If it is not, it is seemingly undervalued. And best of all, this P/E thinking kicks in even more because earnings are increasing almost across the board. But you say – hey, global economy has slowed down, domestic economy hasn’t picked up – so why are the earnings increasing?. But, my question to you is, who the hell cares about sales growth anymore? It doesn’t matter if the growth in EPS has come through lower raw material costs (commodity prices at lows), or lower fuel costs (did you see the fuel expenses in P&L statements these days – thanks Piyush Goyal) or slightly better operating leverage? Who cares if it is sustainable or not? Why don’t I care about sustainability?

g) Hey boss, by now, you would have got the drift. I am not in the business of long term investing. I am in the business of giving gyaan on long term investing but actually invest based on triggers/news flow/get into the next best story and flip it in a quarter, maybe a year (if I am really in the mood). I don’t have time for any stocks who don’t perform magnificently quarter on quarter. Flip. Flip. And f’in Flip. There are charts and there are tools and there is momentum and then there are earnings. We are in the business, eventually, of finding the greater fool.

But all this sounds as if I am doing all the right things and not fall prey to all these above flaws? Of course I am.

Do I always invest in quality? Check. Do I always invest in stories with large potential and great management integrity? Check. Do I always do scuttlebutt and speak to the right guys in the business? Check. Am I not affected by P/Es and triggers and whatsapp messages? Check.

I am not confused. This is not madness in markets (neither is it Sparta). Of course this isn’t Chaos. I know everything. How, you ask?

Because, I am just as confident as a f’in fresh MBA grad who can spout relentless ‘good’ advice with all the enthusiasm and language. And all you underlings – I mean, all other investors – listen to what I say. You will be wiser for it.




Go for the Million!

If you already have a million dollars or more, this blogpost is not for you.

For all others, I’ll cut the bullshit and get to the chase. I am just mighty pissed off.

When you have less than a million dollars –

Please don’t listen to any or all the Gurus who are propagating 16% CAGR, 18% CAGR, 20% CAGR. You know the usual spiel. Say, you have 5 Lakh rupees. Gurus recommend that you should be happy be 18% CAGR or 20% CAGR and over a long period of time (40 years), you would be so rich, that even the rich would be ashamed.


For all those studies, where you read that if you had invested in quality at any price, and just held on to them for a long period of time (40 years), you would have made enough money to be proud of yourself.


You really want to know what they DON’T tell you.

By the time you are rich, you will be OLD. You will be very old. Your kids and grand kids, of course, would really appreciate all your journey, effort and all the good things that you have done for them. You will just die as a rich man without all the good things before it. That’s just a tragedy.

Since the readers of this blog are reasonably well versed with numbers, let me illustrate it with numbers.

Let me get the first and the easiest thing out of the way without the numbers. People keep doing these fancy calculations in excel about how much their salary is growing to grow, how health expenses will increase, plug in a sexy inflation number and try to arrive at a figure which they think will be enough for retirement.

Let me solve that for you. You need a million dollars (ex-Mumbai). Unless you want to live the luxurious life of Vijay Mallya ,(well, if you were Mallya, you wouldn’t do all these calculations), a million dollars would let you live and eventually die peacefully.

Ok, now for the numbers bit.

Let’s say you start investing at the age of 27 (well, how better it would be if you could start investing at the age of 15, but try convincing your teenage son or a fresh graduate not to spend on the latest smartphone and you’ll know what I mean). You start with Rs. 5 lakh (You can plug in any arbitary number).

Let’s say you manage to do 18% CAGR over a long period, say 40 years. Do you know how much money you would have by the time you are 67? 37 cr 51 lakh.

Whoa. That’s a lot of amount you say. Definitely it is.

But what would you do with so much amount at 67? You would be old, frail and not really ready to say travel widely or eat whatever you want or whatever shaukh (sic) you have.

Ok. So, how much money would you have by the time you are 57? 7 cr 16 lakh. Did you observe the difference?

Ok. So, how much money would you have by the time you are still fit, healthy and want to do what you want – say at the age of 47? 1 cr 37 lakh.

Did you see the difference? Did you really observe the beauty of compounding? You would not dream to live a reasonably luxurious life, traveling where you want, doing what you want to do with 1 cr 37 lakh.

And that’s my problem with folks preaching ‘my target is 18% cagr because the Gurus said it’, ‘I am ok with 16-20% cagr, but I don’t yet have a million dollars’.

Nobody, or rather, from whatever I have read spells out clearly on this intricate relationship between CAGR and Age. You can be rich, but you are already old.

I would rather die with 10 cr, in the process doing what I want than die with 37 cr to make my children and grand children happy.

And that brings me to my real point.

You should really not be aiming anything less than 35-40% CAGR if you are not already a millionaire. It just sucks not to aim for it.

Why did I say 35-40% at a minimum? That’s because, you can make 100x your money in 15 years with a 36% CAGR. Your 5 lakh will become 5 cr in 15 years (if you start at 27, by the time you are 42 – you are reasonably rich and an almost millionaire). This is not something that I picked up from the now famous 100-to-1 book. That never spoke of age. In fact, he talks very long time frames.

Is this the bull market in me speaking? Definitely. But why not? Look, unless you are outrageously lucky with a stock or timing the depth of a bear market, your BIG returns are going to come only in a bull market. Again, numbers. If a Rs. 20 has to become Rs. 100, you need a 400% return. That same Rs. 100 to come back to Rs. 20 requires just a 80% drop. So, you absolutely need to make killer returns in the bull market to survive the bear market.

People will try to dissaude you by quoting process will get corrupted, people will indulge in speculative stocks etc. My question is – what’s a corrupt process? Just because there is a wave of high quality, high management integrity bull market this time, everybody is on this bandwagon of the right process etc. It’s almost as if investing was just born in 2009.

And speculation. I don’t think speculation is going to net you 35-40% CAGR for 15 years. I have not met anybody yet doing this.

Is this easy? It’s obviously not meant to be easy. Just because you have some internet forums and whatsapp groups these days doesn’t mean investing is easy. There is a lot of hard work, there is a lot of luck and there is a lot of position sizing science involved before you make that million dollars. As Munger says, ‘It’s not meant to be easy. If you think it is easy, you are stupid’.

And speaking of Munger (which, in these days of the current bull market, seem to encapsulate all other Gurus), here’s what he had to say in Snowball – remember, when he was young –


So, for all those people who keep saying 18-20% CAGR, you are either already a millionaire or you are just bullshitting. Aim higher. Work harder. Enjoy the process of investing. And actually enjoy life at the right age. There is no fun in dying rich. And there is a tragedy in dying really rich without having enjoyed or doing what you really wanted to do.

Go for 35-40% CAGR (atleast). Become a millionaire. Live comfortably.

P.S – Cynical folks may obviously point out that 5 lakh is only a starting capital and people will add as and when they grow in life. You know, if people were so disciplined in investing, we’d have a lot more people active in 10 year and 15 year SIPs.

P.P.S – Other folks might point out CAGR is not important but how much, as a % of your networth, is more important to overall gains. Absolutely agree. Convince your friend in a bear market to put 90% of his networth in equities. % of networth is very important, but even with smaller sums of money (and I do think Rs. 5 lakh is a smaller amount of money these days, with freshers from IIMs earning Rs.20 lakh), CAGR at the right levels covers a lot of ground.

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