There are four main questions:
What lies ahead for the markets in 2018?
Is this the golden era for stock market investments in India?
Will FY19 mark the revival of the earnings cycle?
What will be the effect of rising interest rates on the markets?
We have witnessed a surge in new investors entering the stock market and I believe it is incumbent upon investment managers to help set their expectations right and educate them on the nature of the stock market. The stock market is a market place, in which we get to allocate capital to businesses of our choice. Buying good businesses at a sensible price can enable a diversified portfolio to earn a reasonable return over time. A return, as many of you would be aware has been, higher than other asset classes over longer time frames and has provided the best protection against inflation. The return of the asset class is measured by the return of the main benchmark indices and active fund managers strive to add Alpha over and above the benchmark return.
As these new investors come in perhaps they seek certainty in our answers to questions such as the four above. But it is not possible to have precise answers to the above questions.
The truth is that nobody can forecast the outcome for the market for any given calendar year consistently. The stock market does not recognise calendar years and its returns are not linear like in the case of Fixed deposits. If you ask a 100 people it is likely that somebody will get it right but you cannot establish who that person is before-hand and remember that even a broken clock tells time accurately twice a day. So take all predictions about returns with a pinch of salt. Even better distrust all forecasts. Nobody knows.
Whether this is a golden era will be judged by history ie post facto. It is impossible to know beforehand. In 2003 there was no forecast that we would achieve average real GDP growth of 8.7% pa over the next five years. Or that the Sensex would rise at a CAGR of 43% from December 31, 2002 to December 31, 2007.
History is always written after the event. What we know as the period of Renaissance and the great enlightenment of Western Europe came to be labelled as such only afterwards. Same for the industrial revolution or the post-World War II boom in the US. These labels are best given after and not beforehand. What we now call the First war of Indian Independence (1857) was named as such nearly 50 years later in the early 1900s. (The British called it the Sepoy revolt of 1857 and maybe they still do). This may well be the golden period or it may not. How can anybody know beforehand? You should make your allocation to the asset class based on your financial goals and not based on forecasts of a golden period.
As regards analyst forecasts, I suggest we refer to the history book again. Analysts have been calling for a recovery in growth every year from 2014 and the numbers have not come good. Similarly during the period 2004-2007 analysts were consistently being surprised by the actual earnings growth coming in ahead of their forecasts. It is not that the analysts are poor at their job. The future is full of surprises — both good and bad.
To make a precise forecast for earnings is made all the more difficult by the number of variables and moving parts that go into it. Earnings may well recover in 2019 given the poor growth of the past few years and what looks like will be a weak base in 2018. But don’t anchor to these forecasts, they may or may not be right and the multiple that the market will pay for the earnings will fluctuate anyway. So why focus so much on the forecast?
As regards the impact of rising interest rates — It depends. Determining the causal impact of the changes in one variable on the stock market is challenging because the final outcome is affected by other variables. There may be little doubt that low interest rates have propped up equity valuations in recent times. This is true globally and in the past two years a similar case could be made in India as well. But we cannot be certain of the outcome in the market from a transition to higher interest rates, because the negative impact of higher rates may be offset by other factors.
For example, if the increase in rates is an outcome of higher growth and it is reflected in rising earnings and expanding return on equity-the market may look through it.
Also, if the animal spirits of the investors rise during this period that may also contribute to the markets ignoring rising rates, at least in the short term.
Of course, beyond a certain point we do know from history that high interest rates are not good for equities. So the appropriate answer is that it depends. Correlation is not causation.
In answering the above questions with certainty, with precise forecasts of earnings & index targets we do a disservice to all investors— new and old. Cut out the noise. Let me be clear, they are perfectly good questions but they should not be the basis of your investment strategy. The data you have seen and read about the superior long term returns from equities as an asset class are a fact. But to achieve them you will have to deal with volatility that is part and parcel of the asset class. How can you do that?
The simple way to navigate equities for most investors is through a Systematic Investment Plan (SIP). A long term SIP is the best way to escape the tyranny of sentiment and fluctuations in valuation. This will significantly increase the probability that that you create a portfolio at reasonable valuations by spreading out your investments over time. A SIP is not a maximisation strategy; it merely smoothens your return outcomes and enables you to overcome the behavioural challenges stemming from the intrinsic volatility of the asset class.
In addition, to achieve you financial goals, you would have to manage asset allocation in line with the appropriate range. You could also consider hybrid products or products where the Investment manager takes decisions on asset allocation.
As for more active investors they could combine an SIP or a Systematic Transfer Plan (STP) with more aggressive shifts in asset allocation. Many advisors have developed an asset allocation framework for this. The objective being to buy more of the asset class when valuations are depressed (be aware that this coincides with period when the news flow is very poor) and reducing allocations to the asset class when valuations are rich (news flow may well be very positive). Of course, this is easier said than done. In the words of the master, investing is simple, but not easy.
Vetri Subramaniam is Head- Equity UTI Asset Management Company Ltd. Views are personal.