Category: Investing Insight

Investing insight to make you a better investor.

Statistics don’t lie. Narratives do.

First, a headline: As U.S. fertility rates collapse, finger-pointing and blame follow (WaPo)

Fact-check: it is true!
Chart from World Bank:

Looks alarming! The government should respond! Mandatory paid maternity and paternity leave! Write-off education loans so that youngsters can afford to start families!

But… could the aggregate reduction in fertility rate be explained by lower teen-pregnancy rate?

And lower infant mortality rates?

Corrected narrative: women are having lesser kids because they expect all of their kids to make it to adulthood. And are having them later in life. Don’t panic.

Before subscribing to a narrative about a statistic, it is important to first figure out why the statistic was created in the first place. The raw fertility rate statistic was probably created to figure out how many midwifes to train/employ if the trend held up. While the second one was setup to measure the efficacy of sex education in schools and the last one to measure the effectiveness of primary healthcare.

It is only when we go beyond the narrative and seek data that falsifies that narrative that we get the full picture. This is the fundamental difference between hypothesis testing and data-mining.

Are Stop-Losses Worth It? Part II

We saw how, in aggregate, stop-losses do not add any value to a momentum portfolio after taxes and transaction costs (Are Stop-Losses Worth It?) When you dig a little deeper into the actual positions that get stop-lossed and analyze their subsequent returns, we find that, on average, subsequent returns are not negative enough to justify trading costs.

During mid-2016 through April-2019 Bull and Bear phases

Here’s how the Momo (Relative) v1.1 Theme’s stop-lossed positions behaved 20-days after they got booted out, mid-2016 through April-2019:

Momo (Relative) v1.1.density-T20.2016-08-23.2019-04-24

Summarized statistics across different holding periods:
Momo (Relative) v1.1.density-table.2016-08-23.2019-04-24

Now let’s partition the total period into two. The first part covers the “bullish” market of mid-2016 through Dec-2017 and the second Jan-2018 through April-2019.

During the mid-2016 through Dec-2017 Bull

Momo (Relative) v1.1.density-T20.2016-08-23.2017-12-29

Summarized statistics across different holding periods:
Momo (Relative) v1.1.density-table.2016-08-23.2017-12-29

During the Jan-2018 through April-2019 Bear

Momo (Relative) v1.1.density-T20.2018-01-01.2019-04-24

Summarized statistics across different holding periods:
Momo (Relative) v1.1.density-table.2018-01-01.2019-04-24


When looked at from the perspective of a single position, a stop-loss removes red ink and is out-of-sight/out-of-mind. However, it is only when you look at their subsequent returns in the aggregate, that you realize that peace-of-mind comes at a cost.

During the bull phase, when the whole market was shooting higher, stop-lossed positions recovered from their losses. Note how the skew is slightly positive. Stop-losses here were a definite drag after taking costs into account.

During the bear phase, it does look like stop-losses helped – the subsequent returns of stop-lossed positions were skewed left. However, as we saw in our previous post, in aggregate, they did not add value after taking costs into account.

Volatility and Returns

Indian mid-caps, represented by the NIFTY MIDCAP 100 TR index, has out-performed its large-cap peer, the NIFTY 50 TR index.

It has done so with higher volatility. Here is the rolling 200-week standard deviation of weekly returns of the two indices:
standard deviation of weekly returns

MIDCAP volatility has been persistently higher than NIFTY volatility in the past:
ratio of standard deviations

A portfolio of bonds and mid-caps should exhibit lower volatility than an all-equity portfolio. Here are the standard-deviation ratios for different allocations to bonds:
standard deviation ratios of different bond allocations
B05, for example, represents a portfolio of 5% short-term bonds and 95% MIDCAP index. As allocation to bonds increases, portfolio volatility decreases.

We see from the chart above that a 75% MIDCAP + 25% BOND portfolio has almost never seen volatility greater than an all NIFTY portfolio. So, what are we giving up in returns to reduce volatility? About 2% in returns:

75% MIDCAP + 25% BOND returns


  1. On an annualized basis, the allocation portfolio gives up about 2% in returns compared to all MIDCAP portfolio and is on par with NIFTY’s.
  2. After taxes and transaction costs, expect the allocation portfolio to under-perform buy-and-hold NIFTY.
  3. No pain. No gain.

Code and charts are on github.

Are Stop-Losses Worth It?

StockViz introduced Themes back in August 2013. We went live with two strategies: Momentum, rebalanced once a month, and Quality to Price, rebalanced once a quarter. The Modi bull market was just getting started and returns were spectacular in the beginning. Here is Momentum, from Jan-2014 through Dec-2015:
Momentum Jan-2014 through Dec-2015

And then, in Jan-2016, the Chinese market crash rippled through world financial markets (WaPo). Momentum collapsed. This is the previous chart extended to June-2016:
Momentum Jan-2014 through June-2016

Momentum investors clamored for a safety net. Enter stop-losses. We created a new set of Themes, called Momos, that had a 5% trailing stop loss at the position level. Positions hitting the stop loss were substituted with stocks that had favorable momentum and trend. The logic was that if the entire market crashed, the strategy would be in cash until stocks gained momentum. We introduced these Themes in June and they worked as advertised on the subsequent market correction in November that year. Idea validated? Here is a chart comparing the returns of Momentum (vanilla) vs. Momo (Relative) v1.1:
Momentum (vanilla) vs. Momo

Momo trails its plain-vanilla counterpart over a ~3 year period. There has been plenty of volatility during that time – November 2016, August 2017 and January 2018 through now. And Momo traded a lot more than its plain-vanilla counterpart (the turnover charts are on the Theme pages linked above) through these bouts of volatility. And what was saved through stop-losses was paid for in taxes and transaction costs. Here is a chart that shows the Momo strategy with and without transaction costs:

So, are stop-losses worth it? Probably not. It is very difficult to de-risk a high-risk strategy intrinsically. It is better for investors to focus on asset allocation to bring down overall portfolio volatility to a level that they can bear. Think of it like trying to tame a tiger. You may very well succeed. But a tame tiger is a cat.

Indian vs. US Mid-caps

There used to be a time when getting your kids through college was the final act before kicking them out of the house. But kids these days want their parents to fund their US education as well. And how about a gap year to travel through Europe? You can roll your eyes all that you want but 15-20 years from now, this will be the new normal for middle-class Indians. What can we do? We have always been an aspirational lot and it is bound to rub off on our kids. As much as we like our kids to be financially independent when they grow up, we also don’t want them to start their lives with a ton of student loans. However, given the potentially large dollar liabilities in the future, most Indian investors continue to keep all their eggs in the Indian rupee basket. If you think your Indian mid-cap mutual fund alone is going to fund your kid’s grad school, think again.

Not only have Indian Mid-caps trailed US Mid-caps over the last 25 years, they have done so with steeper and longer drawdowns.

Over the last 25 years or so, US mid-caps have out-performed Indian mid-caps. Indian asset managers would have you believe that “east or west, India is the best” but that is not what the numbers say. Here are the cumulative and annual returns of the MSCI India MC and MSCI USA MC indices:
MSCI India vs. US mid-cap indices
MSCI India vs. US mid-cap indices

Living in India, it is easy to get carried away with stories about how Indian equities present big opportunities. However, historical returns show that investors were not compensated for the additional risk that they took by investing in India. Also, the US equity market cap is 50% of the total world equity market cap. So even if you have bonds, gold etc in your portfolio, being 100% invested in India is not true diversification. Besides, the Indian rupee keeps depreciating, making your future dollar liabilities that much larger when priced in local assets.

We ran through different allocations between Indian and US mid-caps to get an idea of what the potential returns could look like:
Allocating between MSCI India vs. US mid-cap indices

Assuming a monthly rebalance, the 50/50 portfolio beats the “all in” 100/0 and 0/100 portfolios. And it does so with shallower drawdowns. So both from a diversification and returns point of view, it makes sense to allocate towards US mid-caps.

It is time to have a chat about your portfolio. Get in touch with us now!

Further reading: Funding Your Dollar Dreams