Investing in ETFs

So I put some money in an ETF today. This isn’t the first time I invested in one. A long time back, before my then employer had bought and essentially killed Benchmark, I had invested in a couple of their ETFs – the Nifty ETF to get invest in the broad Indian market, and GoldBees to hedge against increase in the price of gold as I was planning my wedding.

I had some Rupees lying around in my bank account for a long time, and given that the Indian markets have tanked, I thought this is a good time to get invested. In fact, this isn’t the first time in recent times I’m having such a thought – about a month back I had put in more money into the Indian markets, but had then chosen a low cost index tracking mutual fund (and I’m not tracking how my investment is doing).

Anyway, today I decided to invest in ETFs since the transaction costs (in terms of both trading, and annual expenses) are much lower. A quick chat with a friend currently trading the Indian markets revealed that the SBI Nifty ETF is the best option to go with, and I was left with the small matter of just making the investment.

I’m generally happy with ICICI Direct as my broker, since in general the interface and app are pretty nice. Last month, the purchase of the mutual fund through the same app had been pretty simple. And I imagined buying the ETF will be easy as well. It wasn’t. And if I, as a professional investor with considerable capital markets experience, find it hard to invest in ETFs, I can only imagine how hard it might be for mango people to invest in them.

So the points of pain, in order, that prevent people from investing in ETFs:

  1. Knowing that indexing exists. Most people seem to think that the only ways to invest are by researching the stocks themselves, or by paying an asset manager fairly hefty fees.
  2. Once you know you can index, the fact that you can do it through an ETF. ETFs are again not well known, and not really marketed broadly since their fees are low (with Benchmark’s demise, we don’t really have ETF-first fund houses in India, like we have Vanguard in the US).
    1. Related, even some of the more popular robo advisory funds in India largely use mutual funds, rather than ETFs.
  3. Once you know you can index, and do so through an ETF, the next task is to find out which ETF you should invest in. Literature exists, but is not easy to find. My friend sent me this page, and asked me to select the fund with highest market size. Knowing that I want to invest in the broad market, and in large caps, the choice of SBI Nifty ETF was easy for me.
    1. But it’s not so intuitive for a less sophisticated investor. For example, correlating asset size with liquidity isn’t exactly intuitive.
    2. Different ETFs track different indices, and knowing which one to invest in is again not a trivial task.
  4. Having selected an ETF to invest in, you go to your broker’s site or app (I used the app). And you need to know that ETFs are clubbed with equities, and not with mutual funds (not an intuitive classification for most people)
  5. So I go to ICICI Direct’s Equities page, allocate funds to it (from my bank account, also with ICICI), and hit “buy”. There’s a text box where I need to enter what I’m looking for, and then there’s a dropdown that pops up.

    I type “SBI”, and the first thing it shows is the SBI Bank Nifty tracker. This is followed by lots of bonds. I don’t know if it’s clever nudging on ICICI’s part to get you to invest in the Bank Nifty, since that has a significant exposure to ICICI, or if it’s something as mundane as alphabetical sorting. The latter is more likely.

  6. Scrolling down the list past all the bonds, it’s not easy to know which is the SBI Nifty ETF. Because there’s a “SBI Nifty Next 50 ETF” (smaller caps, so more volatile, not something I want), and a few others with confusing names.
  7. Then you need to enter the number of units you need to purchase. This is unlike in mutual funds where you just enter the amount you want to invest. Here I had to pull up a calculator to know exactly how many units I had to buy.
  8. I hit “market order”, and then on the next screen I got a warning that since this wasn’t a particularly liquid instrument I was only allowed to post limit orders. So I had to guess what was a reasonable spread I was willing to pay, and put that. Thankfully the ETF was fairly liquid, and I got execution close to mid.

Honestly, I felt rather daunted at the end of the exercise, and I’m what most people would classify as a sophisticated investor. So there is no wonder that more people aren’t investing in ETFs.

The advantage of ETFs is extremely low fees (the fund I purchased today charges 7 basis points a year), and one downside of it is that it doesn’t allow for more marketing budget.

I’m beginning to think that the way to “solve” this market is by having a bundled ETF and robo advisory offering. Perhaps more on that later.

 

 

Acceptable forms of help

I was reading this note by Kunal Bahl, CEO and co-founder of Snapdeal on the company’s turnaround after the failed acquisition by Flipkart last year. It’s a very interesting note – while I’ve never been a fan of the company (never considered buying from them), this story seems rather interesting, especially given the deep shit it was in a year ago.

What caught my eye is this little note about getting help from a small network of mentors. Bahl writes:

I was able to get the guidance and counsel from some of the most respected and leading business persons in the country. […] In our time of need, it was those who had the least to gain, and most to give, that came to our help. Not with money. But with their wisdom and encouragement. I recall sitting in the room with one of the above persons in August 2017, staring down the barrel with only months of money left in the bank. The gentleman, probably seeing how dire our situation was, picked up the phone and called six of the top business people in the country in quick succession explaining our situation to them – that we were good guys stuck in a bad situation – and requesting them to meet me to see if there were any synergies with their businesses[…]

(emphasis added)

What this got me thinking was about why it’s considered okay to give or take help in the form of intangibles, but not in terms of money. It’s rather common that people help each other out by way of providing advice, making introductions and sometimes just hearing them out. It’s not that common, though, that people help each other out with money.

To take a personal example, if someone asks to talk to me to get some advice, or asks for some connections, it’s very likely that I’ll help them out. On the other hand, if someone were to ask me for money I’ll start seeing them suspiciously.

One quick reason as to why intangibles is okay is that it is sometimes “cheap”. Making introductions doesn’t cost you much as long as you think it’s mutually beneficial for both parties (and in that, it seriously helps if you do double consent introductions – talk to both parties independently before introducing). Advice costs you maybe half an hour or an hour of your time, and if you feel like your time is being wasted, it’s not hard to cut losses. And the value that the recipient gets from this can far exceed the cost incurred by the “giver”.

Another reason is that intangibles are intangible – they’re hard to measure. And by that measure, you don’t rack up some sort of debt. If I take money from you, then what I owe you becomes precisely measurable. And until I repay you, things between us can be awkward. Introductions or advice, on the other hand, keep the value of the “debt” fuzzy, and in most case it gets “written off” any way, permitting the two parties to continue their relationship normally.

Anything else that I might have missed out?

Teacher abuse

Historically, it has been acceptable, indeed desirable, for the teacher to abuse students. Our epics are full of stories where the teacher plays elusive, challenging students to “prove themselves worthy” before being imparted learnings.

The most famous example, of course, comes from the Hindu myth story of Ekalavya who gave a finger to his non-teaching Guru Dronacharya. Elsewhere in the Mahabharata, we had Parashurama cursing his student Karna after discovering that the latter was not a Brahmin.

It is not just Hindu mythology that has such stories (just that I’m most familiar with this). In Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, for example, Pai Mei abuses his pupils, making them carry water up the hill and serve him otherwise until he teaches them the five point exploding heart technique. He drives his students to such a rage that one of them (Elle Driver) ends up killing him.

And this privileged attitude of the teacher (“acharya devo bhava“) extends to modern universities as well. It is common for advisors to endlessly push graduate students before they permit them to graduate, or to take credit for graduate students’ work (check out PhD comics.). In IIT Madras, where I did my undergrad, it is reportedly common for professors to endlessly flunk students who have pissed them off (I played it safe, so no first hand experience in this). Schoolteachers hand out corporal punishment, which is only recently making its exit from the classroom.

As part of my portfolio life over the last seven years, I’ve done several teaching jobs. I’ve taught at IIM Bangalore as an Adjunct Professor. I’ve conducted Data Journalism workshops for journalists and PR executives. I’ve done corporate training workshops.

In the initial days, I would sometimes act like a “typical teacher”, getting annoyed with students with this or that, or abusing my position of privilege in the classroom. Over time, though, I’ve come to see my students as clients – after all, they’re paying me (directly or indirectly) to teach them. And I’ve come to understand that they need to be treated like I treat my other clients – with respect.

If the fact that students are teachers’ clients is this intuitive, why is it that teachers everywhere (both in history and contemporarily) have found it acceptable to abuse students? Is it because teachers are sometimes able to hide behind the brands of sought-after schools and universities? Is it due to the concept of tenure, where professors are recruited for research prowess, and student feedback doesn’t really matter?

Or is it just a self-fulfilling prophecy? Once upon a time, teachers were scarce, and could hence put up their price, and chose to extract it not in cash but in other means. And so the image of “teacher is god” got formed, and perpetuated since most students decided to adhere to it (at least when the teacher is around). To add to this, over time we’ve created institutions such as university rankings which continue to push up artificial scarcity of teachers.

Do you have any idea on why teachers abuse their clients?

Speaking of yellow

Last night, we needed to distract the daughter from the play-doh she was playing with so that she could have dinner. So I set up a diversionary tactic by feeding her M&Ms while her mother hurriedly put away the play-doh.

Soon we figured we needed a diversionary tactic from the diversionary tactic, for the daughter wanted to continuously eat M&Ms rather than have dinner. I tried being the “bad dad” by just refusing to give her any more M&Ms but that didn’t work. So another diversion was set up where the put on TV, and in that little moment of distraction, I put away the yellow packet of M&Ms behind some boxes in its shelf.

Evidently, it wasn’t enough of a distraction, as the daughter quickly remembered the M&Ms and started asking for it. I told her it’s “gone” (a word she uses to describe my aunt who passed away recently), but she wouldn’t believe it. Soon she demanded to inspect the shelf by herself.

Her mother held her high, and she surveyed all three shelves in the cupboard. I hadn’t done a particularly great job of hiding the M&M packet, but thankfully she didn’t spot the yellow top of the packet from behind the masala box.

Instead, her eyes went up to the top shelf of the same cupboard where there was the only visible yellow thing – a bright yellow packet of coffee powder (from Electric Coffee). She demanded to inspect it.

Both of us told her it was coffee powder, but she simply wouldn’t listen. I opened the packet to make her smell it, and see the brown powder inside (we get our coffee ground at the shop since we don’t have a grinder at home, else it’s likely she might have mistaken a bean for a brown M&M). She still wasn’t convinced.

She put her hand right in and pulled out a tiny fistful of coffee powder, which she proceeded to ingest. Soon enough, she was making funny faces, though to her credit she ate all the coffee. It seems the high was enough to make her forget the M&Ms. And suddenly she started running around well-at-a-faster-rate. Fast enough to go bang her head to the wall a minute later – I suspect the caffeine had begun to act.

By the time she had finished crying and recovering from the head-bang, she was ready to belt curd-rice with lime pickle.

And if you want to ask, she fell asleep an hour later. Unlike us oldies, caffeine doesn’t seem to interfere with her sleep!

PS: The title of this post is a dedication to Sanjeev Naik, for reasons that cannot be described here.

Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia and the Vodnoy Paradox

I’ve written about the Murray Gell-Mann amnesia here before. The idea there is that you trust whatever is printed in the newspaper, except for the section which is your domain of expertise. And despite the newspaper falling short in this section, you read the rest of the newspaper as if everything there is “correct”.

Yesterday I came across a similar idea when it comes to big government – what University of Nebraska economist Arthur M Diamond calls as a “Vodnoy Paradox” after his optomerist – it’s basically about big government advocates who advocate big government in all fields except for the one they’re expert in.

Government regulations sound plausible in areas where we know little and have thought less. But usually those who know an area well can tell us of the unexpected harmful consequences of seemingly plausible and well-intentioned regulations. As a result, the same person often advocates government regulations in areas in which they are ignorant and opposes them in areas where they have knowledge. I call this the “Vodnoy Paradox.” 

In the field they’re expert in they know that regulation doesn’t work, or is misguided, yet they support regulation in all other fields. Isn’t this just Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia in a different context? (quote via David Henderson of Econlog)

Book challenge update

At the beginning of this year, I took a break from Twitter (which lasted three months), and set myself a target to read at least 50 books during the calendar year. As things stand now, the number stands at 28, and it’s unlikely that I’ll hit my target, unless I count Berry’s story books in the list.

While I’m not particularly worried about my target, what I am worried about is that the target has made me see books differently. For example, I’m now less liable to abandon books midway – the sunk cost fallacy means that I try harder to finish so that I can add to my annual count. Sometimes I literally flip through the pages of the book looking for interesting things, in an attempt to finish it one way or the other (I did this for Ray Dalio’s Principles and Randall Munroe’s What If, both of which I rated lowly).

Then, the target being in terms of number of books per year means that I get annoyed with long books. Like it’s been nearly a month since I started Jonathan Wilson’s Angels with dirty faces , but I’m still barely 30% of the way there – a figure I know because I’m reading it on my Kindle.

Even worse are large books that I struggle to finish. I spent about a month on Bill Bryson’s At Home, but it’s too verbose and badly written and so I gave it up halfway through. I don’t know if I should put this in my reading challenge. A similar story is with Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies – this morning, I put it down for maybe the fourth time (I bought it whenever it was first published) after failing to make progress – it’s simply too dry for someone not passionate about the subject.

Oh, and this has been the big insight from this reading challenge – that I read significantly faster on Kindle than I do on physical books. Firstly, it’s easier to carry around. Secondly, I can read in the dark since I got myself a Kindle Paperwhite last year. One of the times when I read from my kindle is in the evening when I’m putting Berry to sleep, and that means I need to read in the dark with a device that doesn’t produce so much light. Then, the ability to control font size and easy page turns means that I progress so much faster – even when I stop to highlight and make notes (a feature I miss dearly when reading physical books; searchable notes are a game changer).

I also find that when I’m reading on Kindle, it’s easier to “put fight” to get through a book that is difficult to read but is insightful. That’s how managed to get through Diana Eck’s India: A Sacred Geography, and that’s the reason I made it a point to buy Jordan Peterson’s book on Kindle – I knew it would be a tough read and I would never be able to get through it if I were to read the physical version.

Finally, the time taken to finish a book follows a bimodal distribution. I either finish off the book in a day or two, or I take a month to finish it. For example, I went to Copenhagen for a holiday in August, and found a copy of Michael Lewis’s The Big Short in my AirBnB. I was there for three days but finished off in that time. On the other hand, 12 rules for life took over a month.

Pertinent Observations Grows Up

Over the weekend, I read Ben Blatt’s Nabokov’s Favourite Word Is Mauve, a simple natural language processing based analysis of hundreds of popular authors and their books. In this, Blatt uses several measures of goodness or badness of writing, and then measures different authors by it.

So he finds, for example, that Danielle Steel opens a lot of her books by talking about the weather, or that Charles Dickens uses a lot of “anaphora” (anyone who remembers the opening of A Tale of Two Cities shouldn’t be surprised by that). He also talks about the use of simple word counts to detect authorship of unknown documents (a separate post will come on that soon).

As someone who has already written a book (albeit nonfiction), I found a lot of this rather interesting, and constantly found myself trying to evaluate myself on the metrics with which Blatt subjected the famous authors to. And one metric that I found especially interesting was the “Flesch-Kincaid grade level“, which is a measure of complexity of language in a work.

It is a fairly simple formula, based on a linear combination of the average number of words per sentence and the average number of syllables per word. The formula goes like this:

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Score

And the result of the formula tells the approximate school grade of a reader who will be able to understand your writing. As you see, it is not a complex formula, and the shorter your sentences and shorter your words (measured in syllables), the simpler your prose is supposed to be.

The simplest works by this metric as mentioned in Blatt’s book are the works of Dr. Seuss, such as The Cat in the Hat or Green Eggs and Spam, on account of the exclusive usage of a small set of words in both books (Dr Seuss wrote the latter as a challenge, not unlike the challenges we would pose each other during “class participation” in business school). These books have a negative grade score, technically indicating that even a nursery kid should be able to read them, but actually meaning they’re simply easy to read.

Since the Flesch Kincaid Grade Score is based on a simple set of parameters (word count, sentence count and syllable count), it was rather simple for me to implement that on the posts from this blog.

I downloaded an XML export of all posts (I took this dump some two or three weeks ago), and then used R, with the Tidytext package to analyse the posts. Word count was most straightforward, using the str_count function in the stringr package (part of the tidyverse). Sentence count was a bit more complicated – there were no ready algorithms. I instead just searched for “sentence enders” (., ?, !, etc. I know the use of . in abbreviations creates problems but I can live with that).

Syllable count was the hardest. Again, there are some packages but it’s incredibly hard to use. Finally after much searching, I came across some code that again approximates this and used it.

Now that the technical stuff is done with, let’s get to the content. This word count, sentence count and syllable count all flow into calculating the Flesch-Kincaid (FK) score, which is the approximate class that one needs to be in to understand the text. Let’s just plot the FK score for all my blog posts (a total of 2341 of them) against time. I’ve added a regression line for good effect.

The trend is pretty clear. Over time, this blog has become more complicated and harder to read. In fact, drawing this graph slightly differently gives another message. This time, instead of a regression line, I’ve drawn a curve showing the trend.

When I started writing in 2004, I was at a 5th standard level. This increased steadily for the first two years (I gained a lot of my steady readership in this time) to get to about 8th standard, and plateaued there for a bit. And then again around 2009-10 there was n increase, as my blog got up to the 10th standard level. It’s pretty much stayed there ever since, apart from a tiny bump up in the end of 2014.

I don’t know if this increase in “complexity” of my blog is a good or a bad thing. On the one hand, it shows growing up. On the other, it’s becoming tougher to read, which has probably coincided with a plateauing (or even a drop) in the readership as well.

Let me know what you think – if you prefer this “grown up style”, or if you want to go back to the more simple writing I started off with.