Why the rate of return on insurance is low

I’m currently doing this course on Asset Pricing at Coursera, offered by John Cochrane of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I’m about a fourth of the way into the course and the beauty of the course so far has been the integration of seemingly unrelated concepts. When I went to business school (IIM Bangalore) about a decade ago, I was separately taught concepts on utility functions, discount rates, CAPM, time series analysis and financial derivatives, but these were taught as independent concepts without anybody bothering to make the connections. The beauty of this course is that it introduces us to all these concepts, and then shows how they are all related.

The part that I want to dwell upon in this post is the relationship between discount factors and utility functions. According to one of the basic asset pricing formulae introduced and discussed as part of this course, the returns from an asset is a positive function of the correlation between the price of the asset and your expected consumption growth. Let me explain that further.

The basic concept is that one’s utility function is concave. If you were to plot consumption on the X axis and utility from consumption on the Y-axis, the curve would look like this:

In other words, let us say I give you a rupee. How much additional happiness would that give you? It depends on what you already have! If you started off with nothing, the additional happiness out of the rupee that I gave you would be large. However, if you already have a lot of money, then the happiness you would derive out of this additional rupee would be much lower. This is known in basic economics as the law of diminishing marginal utility, and is also sometimes called the “law of diminishing returns”.

So, let us say that tomorrow you will either have Rs. 80 or Rs. 120 (the reason for this difference in payoff doesn’t matter). Let us call these as states “A” and “B ” respectively. Now, suppose I’m a salesman and I offer you two products. Product X  pays you Rs. 20 if you are in state A but nothing if you are in state B. Product Y pays you Rs. 20 if you are in state B and nothing if you are in state A. Assuming that you can end up in states A or B with equal probability, which product would you pay a higher price for?

The naive answer would be that you would be indifferent between the two products and would thus pay the same amount for both. However, rather than looking at just the payoffs, you should also look at the utility of the payoffs. Given the concave utility function, you would derive significantly higher happiness from the additional Rs. 20 when you are in State A rather than in State B (refer to appendix below). Hence, you would pay a premium for product X relative to product Y.

Now, from a purely monetary perspective, the payoffs from X and Y are equal. However, you are willing to pay more for product X than for product Y. Consequently, the expected returns from product X will be much lower than the expected returns from Y (define returns as frac {payoff}{price} - 1. Hence, for the same payoff, the higher the price the lower the returns). Keep this in mind.

Now let us come to insurance. Let us take the example of car insurance. Most of  the time this doesn’t pay off. However, when your car gets smashed, you are compensated for the amount you spend in getting it fixed. What should be your expected return from this product?

Notice that when your car gets smashed, you will need to spend money to get it repaired. So at the time of your car getting smashed, the amount of money (and consequently consumption) is going to be lower than usual. Hence, the marginal utility of the insurance payout is likely to be higher than the marginal utility of a similar payout at a point in time when your consumption is “normal”. This is like product X above – which gives you a payoff at a time when your consumption level is low! And remember that you were willing to expect lower returns from X. Similarly, you should be willing to expect a lower rate of return from the insurance product!

Technical Appendix

A standard utility function used in finance textbooks is parabolic. Let us assume that for a consumption of C, the utility is - (200-C)^2. The following table shows the utility at various levels of consumption:

Consumption          Utility
80  (A)                  -14400
100                        -10000
120  (B)                 -6400
140                        -3600

Notice from the above table that getting the payoff of 20 when you are at A increases your utility by 4400, whereas when you are at B, the payoff of 20 increases your utility by only 2800. Hence, your utility from the payoff is much higher when you are at A than at B. Hence, you would pay a higher price for product X (which pays you when your consumption is low) than product Y (which pays you when your consumption is already high)

 

India: Disinvestment Receipts

Common wisdom is that disinvestment in India was on a high back in the days when Atal Behari Vajpayee was Prime Minister, when there was a dedicated Ministry of Disinvestment under Arun Shourie. The UPA, upon coming to power in 2004, disbanded this ministry and common wisdom is that disinvestment stopped as a result of that.

Here, we take a look at disinvestment in India over the years. Here is the total disinvestment amount by year:

Source: Data.gov.in
Source: Data.gov.in

 

You can see that there was a spike in disinvestment in 2003-04, which was Vajpayee’s last year as Prime Minister. You can also see that disinvestment ground to a halt in the first term of the UPA government – possibly as a result of the presence of the Left Front as part of the government. However, you may not have realized that in its second avatar the UPA government has taken up disinvestment with a vengeance, with the receipts in the last four years far exceeding the receipts during Vajpayee’s tenure as Prime Minister.

However, the picture becomes clear if we look at the method of disinvestment. Most disinvestment receipts in the 1990s and in the last five years have come through a sale of minority stakes in PSUs. The disinvestment receipts in the Vajpayee years, however, came mostly through majority stake sales and strategic sales. In other words, there has been no big bang disinvestment in the last ten years – the money the government has made is through quiet sales of minority stakes in PSUs. So one can say that big bang disinvestment has ground to a halt after Vajpayee’s tenure.

Source: Data.gov.in
Source: Data.gov.in

 

Exponential increase in uptake of IMPS

We had dealt with exponential increases on this blog once before. We revisit the topic, and this time this is in the context of the inter bank mobile payment system that came into place sometime last year. I’ve never used it so I’m not sure how it works, but going by the data put out by the National Payments Corporation of India, the volume of transactions is increasing at an exponential rate.

How do we determine this is an exponential rate? First, let us look at the time series of total volumes of transactions:

Source: http://www.npci.org.in/impsVolumes.aspx
Source: http://www.npci.org.in/impsVolumes.aspx

Notice that after remaining flat for a couple of months (maybe even decreasing) the number of transactions has really taken off (March is probably an aberration – but given that it’s the month of financial closure the higher volumes can be expected). Increased exponentially, you say? How can we test that?

We can test that by using a logarithmic scale for the y-axis. Here is the same plot again, except that this time the Y-axis is logarithmic.

Source: http://www.npci.org.in/impsVolumes.aspx
Source: http://www.npci.org.in/impsVolumes.aspx

Notice that apart from the part with the aberration and the initial two months, the graph is now linear. In other words, we can describe this graph by a line of the form

log y = a + b x

or y = exp (a + bx)

Thus, exponential!

Coming back from the geekery, it is really good to note that IMPS has taken off. However, this should not be taken as proof of the fact that mobile payments are easy, for IMPS is anything but easy. New RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan has said in his inaugural speech that he hopes to make it simpler to make payments via mobile. Hopefully this will take off soon. Till then all we can do is to contribute to the exponential growth in the update of the IMPS!

Banking activity and economic activity

Out on Capitalmind, Deepak Shenoy has an excellent post on the penetration of banking services in India, where he points out that 30% of all bank deposits in India are in Mumbai and Delhi. I encourage you to read that post in full.

Having read that, I was interested to see the per capita figures and compare them across states. On a whim, I decided to compare that to per capita state GDP and this is what I got:

Data source: RBI website Note: Maharashtra, Delhi and Goa have been left out because they are outliers. Some other states (Chandigarh, Gujarat and Mizoram) have been left out since their latest GSDP figures are not available
Data source: RBI website
Note: Maharashtra, Delhi and Goa have been left out because they are outliers. Some other states (Chandigarh, Gujarat and Mizoram) have been left out since their latest GSDP figures are not available

 

 

While the direction of causality cannot be clearly established, this clearly shows that banking penetration is highly correlated with economic activity.

Addition to the Model Makers Oath

Paul Wilmott and Emanuel Derman, in an article in Business Week a couple of years back (at the height of the financial crisis) came up with a model-makers oath. It goes:

• I will remember that I didn’t make the world and that it doesn’t satisfy my equations.

• Though I will use models boldly to estimate value, I will not be overly impressed by mathematics.

• I will never sacrifice reality for elegance without explaining why I have done so. Nor will I give the people who use my model false comfort about its accuracy. Instead, I will make explicit its assumptions and oversights.

• I understand that my work may have enormous effects on society and the economy, many of them beyond my comprehension.

While I like this, and try to abide by it, I want to add another point to the oath:

As a quant, it is part of my responsibility that my fellow-quants don’t misuse quantitative models in finance and bring disrepute to my profession. It is my responsibility that I’ll put in my best efforts to be on the lookout for deviant behavour on the part of other quants, and try my best to ensure that they too adhere to these principles.

Go read the full article in the link above (by Wilmott and Derman). It’s a great read. And coming back to the additional point I’ve suggested here, I’m not sure I’ve drafted it concisely enough. Help in editing and making it more concise and precise is welcome.

 

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.

Liquidity

We live in an era of unprecedented liquidity. Think about the difference from just about ten years ago. Back then, there was a much larger amount of cash reserve that one had to keep in one’s home, or on one’s person. There were no ATMs. There were no credit cards. All purchases needed to be meticulously planned, and budgeted for.

Now, because we don’t need to carry as much hard cash, there is so much more money in the banking system. While that gives depositors the nominal daily interest rate (at some obscenely low rate), there is much more money available with the banks to lend out, which increases the total amount of economic activity by nearly the same amount.

Just think about it. It’s fantastic, the effect of modern finance. And I don’t disagree with Paul Volcker when he says that the most important contribution of modern finance has been the ATM.

PS: My apologies for the break in blogging. I was in and around Ladakh for a week (yes, I was there when the cloudburst happened) and there were some problems with my laptop when I returned because of which I wasn’t able to blog. Hopefully I’ll be able to get back to my one-post-a-day commitment. And I have lots of stories to tell (from my Leh trip) so hope to keep you people busy.

A View From the Other Side

For the first time ever, a few days bck, I was involved in looking at resumes for campus recruitment, and helping people in coming up with a shortlist. These were resumes from IIMB and we were looking to recruit for the summer internship. Feeling slightly jobless, I ended up taking more than my fair share of CVs to evaluate. Some pertinent observations

  • There was simply way too much information on peoples’ CVs. I found it stressful trying to hunt down pieces of information that would be relevant for the job that I was recruiting for. IIMB restricts CVs to one page, but even that, I felt, was too much. Considering I was doing some 30 CVs at a page a minute, I suppose you know how tough things can be!
  • The CVs were too boring. The standard format certainly didn’t help. And the same order that people followed -undergrad scores followed by workex followed by “positions of responsibility” etc. Gave me a headache!
  • People simply didn’t put in enough effort to make things stand out. IIMB people overdo the bolding thing (I’m also guilty of that), thus devaluing it. And these guys used no other methods to make things stand out. Even if they’d done something outstanding in their lives, one had to dig through the CV to find it..
  • There was way too much irrelevant info. In their effort to fill a page and fill some standard columns, people ended up writing really lame stuff. Like how they had led their wing football team in the intra-hostel tournament. Immense wtfness. Most times this ended up devaluing the CV
  • Most CVs were “standard”. It was clear that people didn’t make an effort to apply to us! Most people had sent us their “finance CV” but would you send the same CV for an accounting job as you will for a quant job? Ok yeah I understand this is summers, but if I see a CV with priorities elsewhere, I won’t shortlist them!
  • By putting in several rounds of resume checking and resume workshops, IIMB is doing a major disservice to recruiters. What we see are some average potential corporate whores, not the idiosyncracies of the candidates. Recruiting was so much more fun when I’d gone to IITM three years back. Such free-spirited CVs and all that! This one is too sanitised for comfort. Give me naughtyboy123@yahoo.com any day
  • People should realize that campus recruitment is different from applying laterally. In the latter, yours is one of the few CVs that the recruiter is looking at and can hence devote much more time going through the details. Unfortunately this luxury is not there when one has to shortlist 20 out of 180 or so, so you need to tailor your CVs better. You need to be more crisp and to the point, and really highlight your best stuff. And if possible, to try and break out of standard formatI admit my CV doesn’t look drastically different from the time it did when I was in campus (apart from half a page of workex that got added), but I think even there I would make sure I put a couple of strongly differentiating points right on top, and hopefully save the recruiter the trouble of going through the whole thing.
  • I think I’m repeating myself on this but people need to realize that recruiters don’t care at all about your extra-currics unless you’ve done something absolutely spectacular, or if there is some really strong thread running  through that section. So you don’t need to write about all the certificates that you have in your file

The bottom line is that recruitment is a hard job, especially when you have to bring down a list of 200 to 20 in very quick time. So do what you can to make the recruiter’s job easy. Else he’ll just end up putting NED and pack you.

Why MBAs do finance – a studs and fighters perspective

I don’t have sources here but enough people have cribbed that nowadays too many MBAs are going into finance, and banking, and not too many of them get into “real management” jobs, which is what the country/the world desires them to get into. I clearly remmeber a Mint column on this topic by Govind Sankaranarayanan. And that is surely not the exception. And I remember reading this article very recently (don’t know where) which says that the reason MBAs were taken into banking was to provide a business perspective to banking, and not to be hardcore finance people themselves.

Management roles can be broadly classified into two – functional management and coordination management (the latter is also known as “general” management). Functional management is more like “captaincy” – you essentially do similar work to what your team does, and you guide and direct them, and help them, and boss over them, and get paid a lot more for it. The best part of functional management is that you can outsource all the chutiya kaam to some underling. And there is enough “functional” interaction for you with your team in order to keep your mind fresh.

Coordination management, on the other hand is mostly about getting things done. You don’t necessarily need to have experrtise in what your team does, though some degree of comfort does help. Most of your work is in coordinating various things, talking to people, both inside the team and outside, both inside the company and outside, and making sure that things are done. No special studness is generally required for it – all it requires is to be able to follow standard operating procedures, and also to be able to get work done out of people.

Historically, functional managers have been “grown” from within the team. it is typically someone who was doing similar work at a lower level who gets promoted and hence takes on a leadership role. So in an engineering job, the functional manager is also an engineer. The sales manager is also typically a salesman. And so on.

Historically, MBAs have been generally staffed in “coordination management” roles. Typically these are multifunctional multiskilled areas for which it is not easy to pick someone from one of the existing departments, and hence MBAs are recruited. Historically, when people have talked about “management”, they have referred to this kind of a role.

So through my description above, and through your own observations in several places, you would have figured out that coordination management/general management is typically a fairly fighter process. It is about getting things done, about following processes, about delivering, etc.

This applies only to India – but there is a reasonably high “stud cutoff” that is required in order to get into the better B-schools in the country. This is because the dominant MBA entrance exam – CAT – is an uberstud exam (I would argue that it is even more stud than the JEE – which requires some preparation at least, and hence puts a reasonable fighter cutoff). So you have all these studs getting into IIMs, and then discovering that the typical general management job is too fighter and too less stud for them, and then looking for an escape route.

Finance provides that escape route. Finance provides that escape valve to all those MBAs who figure out that they may not do well in case they get into general management. Finance as it was in the last 5-10 years was reasonably stud. And thus attracted MBAs in reasonably large numbers.

The simple fact is that a large number of people who get into MBA won’t be able to fit into a general management kind of job. Hence there is no use of commentators cribbing about this fact.

If the IIMs decide that they would rather produce general managers rather than functional managers, they would do well to change admission requirements. To make admission less stud and more fighter. ISB, in that sense, seems to be doing a decent job – by having significantly lower stud cutoffs and putting more emphasis on work experience and other fighterly aspects. Hence, you are more likely to find an ISB alum going into general managementt as opposed to IIM alum.

How do i describe my job?

One of the “problems” with my job, if I can describe this as one, is that it’s tough to explain my job to a layman. There are multiple levels of disconnects here, and multiple “pitfalls”, if I can call them that. So when someone asks me about my work, it gets tough indeed to describe to any degree of accuracy while at the same time being concise, and at the same time talking in Kannada.

I am a quant at a hedge fund.

My work involves coming up with trading strategies, and then developing them to a level where I can have the ultimate fighter – a computer – to trade using these strategies. Then, I will need to figure out how the computer is going to implement these strategies and this part involves some heavy engineering work. And finally I code. Ok now I haven’t been accurately able to describe in one paragraph, writing in English, about my job. How do you expect me to describe it to the layman speaking in Kannada?

Coding is a part of my job, but I’m not a coder.

I deal with financial products – equities and equity derivatives. But I’m strictly not a finance guy – as far as I’m concerned, each security is just a time series. A time series on which I can trade and make money. In fact, apart from my short stint selling interest rates swaps in London, I haven’t really done any finance. My entire view of the markets is based on my idea that a security is just a tradeable time series. I think I should do a separate post on that. Anyways, I’m not strictly a finance guy also.

One of my degrees is an MBA. A PGDM to be precise, from IIMB. But I’m not a manager also. I don’t manage people apart from myself.  I’m not sure I’ll find that interesting either – I sometimes think managing is too fighter a job for me.

And so on.

And then, I work for a hedge fund. Most people don’e have a clue what a hedge fund is. I sometimes make an approximation and tell them I work for a mutual fund. And immediately I get bombarded with questions like my opinion on whether the markets will go up or down, and about how long the recession is going to last. And then there are those who start telling their sob stories about their investments in the markets when the Sensex was at 20,000 and about how markets can’t be trusted any more.

Another level of contradiction is that I’m based in Gurgaon. All finance companies are supposed to be in Bombay, right? Surely, given that I’m in Gurgaon, I must be doing some back office kind of work?

Last night my uncle was filling up some arranged marriage exchange registration form for me. And he asked me to describe my job in a short phrase. I immediately came up with “trader” and that got quickly shot down since that would give the image of a lala sitting behind huge weighing scales. Next I tried “financial trader” and “quantitative trader”. No go.

Then I wanted the simple “quant”. My highly stud uncle himself had trouble exactly figuring that out, so fat chance anyone would appreciate that. So out again. I relaxed constraints a bit and said “hedge fund professional”. But most people wouldn’t understand “hedge fund”. “mutual fund” was no go for a written form. “quantitative analyst” was considered too country by my uncle. He then asked me my designation. “Associate” doesn’t mean anything, he said and shot that down too.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve unnecessarily complicated life for myself by choosing the path that I’ve chosen. If I were working for some software company I could’ve just written “software” over there and all would’ve been fine. The whole world would’ve understood, or at least claimed to have understood. Or even better, if I were living abroad, I wouldn’t have even been required to say that much. I’d’ve been just qualified as a “foreign huduga”, with most people not even caring for which city I was in.

For the record, my listing application records my profession as “financial services professional”, as country as it sounds. This was the only middle ground where my uncle and I didn’t disagree. And in it went. It increasingly looks like I’ll have to put fundaes to Cesares about why the stock markets have gone down in the last one year in order for them to allow their daughters to marry me. I have half a mind to start describing Ito’s lemma the next time someone asks me where the markets are headed. I’ll probably start off describing to them a random walk. And say that it’s a drunkard’s walk. And perhaps use that to change the topic. I think I might need to start practicing this. In Kannada.

I’m a quant at a hedge fund.