In Perpetual Transition

This post has nothing to do with Ravi Karthik’s blog. It has everything to do with Bangalore’s roads. I can’t recall a single instance in time in the last 15 years when all roads in Bangalore have been in “normal state”. Maybe ever since the KR Market flyover started, there has been one part of the city or the other that has been dug up. And the digging is only increasing. Earlier it would be a handful of places in the city that were dug up. Now, it is tough to find two points over 5 km apart such that you don’t have to take a diversion of some sort to travel between them.

The optimistic among us think that things will become better as soon as these projects get completed. However, what we forget is that there is a small but powerful section of society that survives on the city being in transition. Road-builders, bridge-builders, road-diggers, road-fillers, and all these sundry people make their living based on the premise that the city will be in perpetual transition. And given how critical income from such activities is for their survival, they resort to lobbying and paying “rents” to relevant people in the government to ensure their cash flows continue.

The problem here is one of a small concentrated set of big winners, and a large uncoordinated distributed set of small losers. And the small set of winners can successfully get together and lobby and have things their way, because the other set is too disjointed to do anything about it.

The other (and in my opinion, the bigger) problem is that thanks to lobbying, the government has a natural disposition to spend more than to spend less. And all the spending comes from taxpayer money. So you have the road projects in Bangalore that you think you don’t need. You have the free TVs and Mixies and whatnot in Tamil Nadu. And you have rice and wheat given to the (supposed) poor at rock-bottom prices. And where does the money for all this come from? Your taxes!

I hope sooner rather than later people realize that the only solution to corruption is less government. The problem, however, is that the government has no incentive to reduce its own size – for in that case the kickbacks and ┬árents that it (to be precise, people who are part of government) can potentially extract come down. You might institute acts like FRBM (fiscal responsibility and budget management, which seeks to put a cap on government spending) but with such a cap in space, what is the guarantee that the government will actually spend that limited money on what is necessary, and not what gives rents for its officers and employees?

Political parties may have different ideologies, and may appear to fight about every little thing. But this is one thing they agree on – that the size of the government be large – that way they all get to (in turns) have a share of the (rental) pie. This equilibrium is stable and I don’t know how we can snap out of this. And till then, our taxes will continue to flow out. And the cities will be in perpetual transition.

The Trouble With Analyst Reports

The only time I watch CNBC is in the morning when I’m at the gym. For reasons not known to me, my floor in office lacks televisions (every other floor has them) and the last thing I want to do when I’m home is to watch TV, that too a business channel, hence the reservation for the gym. I don’t recollect what programme I was watching but there were some important looking people (they were in suits) talking and on the screen “Target 1200” flashed (TVs in my gym are muted).

Based on some past pattern recognition, I realized that the guy in the suit was peddling the said stock (he was a research analyst) and asking people to buy it. According to him, the stock price would reach 1200 (I have no clue what company this is and how much it trades for now). However, there were two important pieces of information he didn’t give me, because of which I’ll probably never take advice from him or someone else of his ilk.

Firstly, he doesn’t tell me when the stock price will reach 1200. For example, if it is 1150 today, and it is expected to reach 1200 in 12 years, I’d probably be better off putting my money in the bank, and watching it grow risk-free. Even if the current price were lower, I would want a date by which the stock is supposed to reach the target price. Good finance implies tenure matching, so I should invest accordingly. If the stock is expected to give good returns in a year, then I should put only that money into it which I would want to invest for around that much time. And so forth.

Then he doesn’t tell me how long it will stay at 1200. I’m not an active investor. I might check prices of stocks that I own maybe once in a week (I currently don’t own any stock). So it’s of no use to me if the price hits 1200 some time during some intraday trade. i would want the price to remain at 1200 or higher for a longer period so that I can get out.

Thirdly and most importantly, he doesn’t tell me anything about volatility. He doesn’t give me any statistics. He doesn’t tell me if 1200 is the expected value of the stock, or the median, or the maximum, or minimum, at whatever point of time (we’ve discussed this time bit before). He doesn’t tell me what are the chances that I’ll get that 1200 that he professes. He doesn’t tell me what I can expect out of the stock if things don’t go well. And as a quant, I refuse to touch anything that doesn’t come attached with a distribution.

Life in general becomes so much better when you realize and recognize volatility (maybe I’ll save that for another discourse). It helps you set your expectations accordingly; it helps you plan for situations you may not have thought of; most importantly it allows you to recognize the value of options (not talking about financial options here; talking of everyday life situations). And so forth.

So that is yet another reason I don’t generally watch business TV. I have absolutely no use for their stock prediction and tips. And I think you too need to take these tips and predictions with a bit of salt. And not spend a fortune buying expensive reports. Just use your head. Use common sense. Recognize volatility. And risk. And you’ll do well.