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In God we trust, but in gold we invest

February 04, 2008 17:03 IST

Buddha was smart. He wanted to understand the world and uncover the secret of life. But while most of us look outside, Buddha looked within.

He sat under a tree. And waited. He waited for wisdom to come to him.

It was a long wait.

But today we need rapid answers. Quick fixes. Immediate results.

So we travel. We travel to search for the answer. To seek the truth. In search of knowledge.

With the help of modern machines, I have the dubious distinction of having travelled more than Buddha did. And I have discovered many things. Not all of the same level of significance as the Buddha's discovery, I confess. Things that make our complex world a little easier to understand.

Like when you travel to a foreign country and end up in a lift at an airport, a hotel or a parking garage and you want to exit to the street level which button should you press? The one that says 'B,' 'G,' or '1'?

The answer: look for the button with the star sign next to it. That is the button you press for the exit.

Or when you fly on an international flight, say on Swiss Air, remember that all even numbered flights (any flight number ending in 0, 2, 4, 6, and 8) means that the plane is starting in Zurich -- the home city of Swiss Air -- and flying to some other place. All odd number flights (any flight ending with a 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9) are flights that will end up reaching the home country of that airline -- Zurich.

Or when you drive in America, all inter-state roads that end with an odd number are north-south roads and any interstate road that ends with an even number is an east-west road.

Buddha did not know all these important things.

He just sat under a tree and waited.

But life is complex in today's world. And time is money. So we must create our own little pools of knowledge. We can't afford to wait around for some apple from a tree falling on our head like Newton did. We can't wait for years to get some flash bulb light up in our heads.

So there is Societe Generale, the second largest bank in France which wanted to boost its profit by building a team of traders to outsmart the other smart traders in the markets.

These traders buy and sell and sell and buy all the time -- that is why they are called traders. By their continuous trading, SocGen hoped to boost its profits. SocGen spent millions of dollars on building the most sophisticated system to track the risks taken by their crack 'A' team of derivative traders.

And then they discover that some small trader in a un-important unit, called the 'Delta' trading unit, has taken bets worth $50 billion (more than the market cap of the bank) and has lost $7 billion from hundreds of little, unknown trades.

$7 billion. Gone. Vanished. By some junior person who no one even knew existed. A gentleman who was earning $140,000 in salary and bonuses and had an ambition to earn more money and the respect of the other traders.

He earned my respect, for sure: how do you lose $7 billion without anyone finding out? In less than 17 days?

Like Newton, this man got the answer. But when the apple fell off the tree, the entire tree fell down, too. SocGen got socked.

Then there are the eight little villages in northern Norway that are home to 1,500 residents. Their brokers advised them to put all the savings of that municipality in loans in the United States of America. This was reportedly done in May, 2007. Your money is safe; I can hear the brokers telling the treasurer of the municipality. And you get a higher rate of return. The poor treasurer signed a cheque.

By August they were told that the loans they had bought were worthless. Zero. $84 million down the drain. Now the town may have to close the local library. But they still need to find a way to keep the police and fire departments working.

Everyone is a seeker, everyone is on some journey. We don't think of it that way, though. But, whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not, we are being pulled along by this magnetic power of greed.

Along comes an IPO. It trades at a 100 per cent premium in the 'unofficial' market. Everyone rushes to subscribe. Better still, some people will use all their savings to subscribe and flip. Even better, these greedy people think, let's borrow and put some more money into this IPO machine to make that great return. To cash in on that 100 per cent premium. I can almost hear that Norwegian broker speaking with an Indian voice: Your money is safe.

Safety and wild returns don't go together. We wish it did. But it does not.

People can look at the same thing and see many different things. I see the Indian stock market and I see 'safety.' You may see the same stock market and recognise it to be a treacherous place to risk your money, even a small portion of it.

Another person, driven by the desire to gamble and make money quickly, may see the stock market as the greatest invention since dice. The dice the Pandavas rolled to lose their kingdom. Or the dice that the Kauravas rolled to make their kingdom larger.

In many ways, the stock market is like a human being. The person is the same but the way we look at that person is different, depending on what we know.

My wife probably sees in me a nomad -- always moving around. My colleagues at work may see me as a discoverer, challenging norms and breaking free -- or maybe they see me as a fool. My children probably see me as a tide in the ocean -- sometimes in, sometimes out. My friends may see me as an idiot -- in the right field of finance, working hard, but nowhere in m-cap.

And all I want is to be seen as a good husband, a good father, a good member of my family, a good friend, a good person to work with -- and contributing to society in some ethical and positive way.

Like people, companies -- and the stocks that represent them -- have characteristics. Personalities, habits, behaviour patterns. One needs to understand them. One needs to study them. Stocks and shares are actually instruments which, if handled well, can make you a good return.

But who wants to wait under a tree?

Who wants to seek wisdom?

We chase profits. We look for the easy money, not earnings. Quick knowledge, not wisdom.

It is a fast world and we will be left behind.

We must chase GDP growth -- we must approve 250 SEZs even if they go against the very grain of fairness and equality.

Everyone has a Padma Bhushan to win. Some deserve it, many win it.

But the greed for profits overpowers everything else. People line up to flip IPOs.

So, how do you teach someone not to be stupid? Not to be greedy? When things go wrong -- as they inevitably do -- should you bail them out or should you rescue them?

Ben Bernanke has a solution. Well, to be fair to him, it is not a very original idea anymore. The claim to fame for the origination of this idea in modern economic history lies with Alan Greenspan, his predecessor as the chairman of the US Federal Reserve.

When faced with a choice of allowing the economy to live through the after-effects of a wild night out with the boys, Alan decided to give the fun loving boys a mild scolding and a heavy dose of cash infusion. Go, spend some more. Live it up.

Helicopter Ben is delivering what he promised he would do -- drop money from the skies so that it reaches everyone on Mother Earth.

On January 21, the global stock markets took a beating. The US markets were closed to observe Martin Luther King's birthday. By January 22, the Fed knew that when the US markets opened they would sink. The Fed cut the interest rates from 4.25 per cent to 3.5 per cent. The markets rallied. But the economic news is not getting better. So, on January 30, Ben chopped the federal funds rate -- the rate at which banks borrow from and lend to each other -- by another 50 basis points from 3.5 per cent to 3.0 per cent.

And he will go lower, if he has to. Things are bad, and we need to rescue. No room for pain here. No room for any repenting. Flood the world with money, and buy yourself out of trouble.

But what is that money worth? What can be the value of any paper money that is printed at a printing press? The same technology in the printing presses that print your newspaper. But the output of these Fed-owned printing presses has these important looking signatures on them.

In God We Trust.

Central bankers are indeed like gods. Well, they were. They spoke in deep, controlled voices, and they were the school principals that ensured there was discipline on the school grounds. Now, they go out with the students on a wild boys' night. And the central bankers are even willing to pay the bill.

And where will all this end? Shouldn't someone be punished for taking wild risks and letting greed get the better of them? Should we reward those who save? Or those who speculate with wild greed? Or those who consume and rack up huge debts which they can no longer repay?

What happens when central bankers are willing to lend money at a rate that is lower than inflation? How bad can inflation get? How worthless can a currency be? How uncontrolled can a central banker be?

We like the measured methods of the Reserve Bank of India. We have no answers on what will happen with the un-measured methods of Ben and the Fed.

Buddha waited patiently. He searched. He lived through all his experiences and sought messages from them. Meanings. Interpretations. And then he chose the ultimate action: inaction. Sitting under a pipal tree. Till he got the answer. And then he spread the message.

We have no answers and we have a long way to go to understand what is going on as we work out the 'meaning of life.' But, the actions of the past few days nudge us in the direction of caution. Of scepticism, as we buy insurance for our investment portfolio. Of disbelief in an economic order that seems to preach no order.

We may not have resolved all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, but we have defined the boundary -- the edges are known.

In God We Trust, but in gold we invest.

Ajit Dayal is director, Quantum Advisors Private Limited and its 100% subsidiary, Quantum Asset Management Company Private Limited. Ajit is also the founder and director of Quantum Information Services Pvt. Ltd., which owns Equitymaster & Personalfn.

Ajit Dayal