Keeping Your Options Open

KEEPSrikanth owns stocks of ABC Ltd. After he learnt about the concept of futures and hedging from professor Nicky, he used the futures contracts on ABC Ltd. to hedge the risk of a downward slide in the share prices. Unfortunately for him, just a few days after he entered the contract, the company announced its quarterly earnings and the stock prices have gone up steadily ever since.

The value of his stocks are now higher. That’s good news. But he does not intend to sell the stock. On the other hand, his losses are very real! He started getting margin calls from his broker. So he closed out his position in the futures market, before his losses become larger.

However, this led him to think of how it would be great if he could have the good part of futures without the obligation to honor the contract!

“Naah…I guess that would be too good to be true…”, thought Srikanth. Nevertheless, he walked into prof. Nicky’s room to share his experience with futures with the professor.

Prof Nicky: Well, as a matter of fact, such instruments do exist. They are called Options. By buying an option, you can lock in a price but can choose not to exercise your option if the market offers a more advantageous price.

Srikanth: Buying an option?

Prof. Nicky: Perceptive as always Srikanth. Yes, you buy an option. Since you have a right but no obligation to trade your stock at a pre-determined price, you pay a premium. Else it would be like being able to have your cake and eat it too!

Srikanth: Hmmm… though that would be great, I suppose no one would sell options for free, so this situation seems fair enough. So how about if I want to be able to sell a stock? Can I buy an option to sell a stock?

Prof. Nicky: Yes Srikanth, weirdly as it sounds, you can buy an option to sell a stock… It’s pretty interesting actually, there are fundamentally two types of options, a call option which allows you to buy stock and a put option that allows you to sell stocks. Buying an option allows you to, at a cost, transfer risk to the seller of the option. A simple call or a simple put option are also referred to as plain vanilla options.

Srikanth: Professor, in the futures market, we can buy and sell our contracts any time. Can we do the same in the Options market?

Prof. Nicky: Indeed you can buy and sell them anytime at the price (premium) in the market. However, you can exercise your options anytime only if they are American in nature. Now… before you ask… no you don’t need to be in America to be able to trade in American style Options. It’s just nomenclature.

Options which can be exercised anytime up to expiration are called American Options, where as those which can be exercised only on the day of expiration are known as European style options. Both kinds of options are traded all over the world. In India, the index options are European in nature, while the stock options are American!

Srikanth: They don’t seem too plain to me… But why would anyone sell options? The seller seems to take on a lot of risk!

Prof Nicky: Great question! Simple answer — for the premium. The person writing the option believes that the probability of the option being exercised is very low. So he gets to collect and keep the premium.

Srikanth: Wow!… this is information overload for now..but how about we continue this discussion next week and you tell me how someone like me can use options?

Prof Nicky: Sure!

Contributed By : Amulya Chirala

This article was originally published in Postnoon on June 22nd, 2012

The role of stock markets

This article was originally published in Postnoon on January 4th, 2013: Co-Author- Purvee Hetamsaria

The Udupi restaurant owner at the corner of the street where Prof. Nicky lived, came and sat across the table in front of her, while she was enjoying the delicious meal. With an eye on the cash counter, which he had handed over to his aide for the time being, he asked her if he could chat with her for a while.

Prof. Nicky (with a wink): Sure Raju, if you make my meal free!

Raju: It’s you shop only madam.

Nicky: I was just joking. Tell me what do you want to talk about?

Raju: My son is doing MBA. He has been telling me to invest my spare money in the stock markets instead of keeping it in Fixed Deposit. I have so many doubts. If I ask him, he gets angry. He says that I think too much. He wants me to go and give my money to a broker, who will take care of everything. Tell me madam, how can I put my hard earned money in something I don’t understand?

Nicky: You are right Raju. You should never put your money into something you don’t understand. While you can take the professional help of a broker or an advisor, you should still know what you are doing. You can ask me all your doubts.

Raju: What is the need of stock markets? Can’t we buy and sell shares from/to the company directly?

Nicky: When a company offers its shares to the Public for the first time, through the exchange, and you buy them, then you are buying directly from the company. This is known as an Initial Public Offering (IPO) and the market is categorized as the Primary Market.

Raju: Oh…so those who bought shares of Bharti Infratel recently, bought it from the company directly?

Nicky: Exactly. Similarly, you can also buy directly from the company during Follow On Public Offering (FPO). A company which is already listed on the exchange but needs more money, can raise more money by selling more shares through a FPO. You can sell your shares directly to the company, if the company comes with a buy back scheme or gets delisted from the exchange.

Raju: But after buying a stock, what if I need the money back? I cannot wait till the company decides to buy back or delist. Can I sell my shares back to the company?

Nicky: No, you cannot do that. You must know that a company is not liable to return the capital that it has raised by way of stock. But, you can sell it to someone else. And that’s why we need the stock exchanges, to facilitate the buying and selling of stocks, to provide liquidity. The market where shares are traded, after getting listed, is known as the secondary market. You can sell your stocks easily in this market. All you need is a demat account.

Raju: A demat account?

Nicky: Yes. But I need to leave now. More on it the next time I come here to eat…

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RBI keeps us guessing

This article was originally published in Postnoon on December 28, 2012. Co-author: Purvee Hetamsaria

Prof. Nicky was strolling in the park when she heard a familiar voice calling out her name. She turned around to face a gasping Mr. Mukherjee. The face had a question mark.

Prof: Hello Mr. Mukherjee. What’s troubling you?

Mukherjee (trying to regain his breath): You got me! I was wondering if the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) will lower the interest rates in their upcoming policy review. The general view is that there is a strong possibility of a 75 basis points cut next year. With 50 bps being cut during the last quarter of the current fiscal year.

Prof. Nicky: Well. I cannot predict what RBI is going to do. But yes, it might be welcome by many sections of the industries and the common man.

Mukherjee: That is what I am not able to understand. How does it help the common man? Why should he worry about the matters of monetary policy? I am personally indifferent to it.

Nicky: So you feel! But it’s not true. Remember the time when you took a loan to buy that car of yours and you were complaining to me about the high interest rates?

Mukherjee: Yes. But what does that have to do with RBI and rate cuts?

Nicky: How do banks determine at what rate to lend? How are auto loan, home loan, personal loan, etc, their interest rates determined? It depends on the interest rates set by the RBI. The rate at which banks can borrow funds from the RBI is known as the Repo rate. When the repo rate goes down, banks get funds at a lower rate, which they can pass on to their customers in the form of cheaper loans.

Mukherjee: Hmmm…but since I have already taken the loan, it’s not going to help me.

Nicky: Its not going to help you if your loan has a fixed interest rate. If the loan has a floating interest rate, that is, it changes with the changes in the Prime Lending Rate (PLR), then your Equated Monthly Instalments (EMIs) will come down.

Mukherjee: PLR?

Nicky: It’s the rate at which banks lend to their most credit worthy customers. So for most of us, after taking our credit worthiness into account, the banks decide on an x percent to be added to the PLR, to determine the interest rate. For those who have floating rate loans, the banks generally quote the interest rate as PLR plus x percent. So when PLR comes down, EMI also comes down.

Mukherjee: Got it. But what about my deposits? Will the banks continue to pay me the same interest rates on them?

Nicky: For your existing Fixed Deposits, the answer is yes. For new fixed deposits, the banks may reduce the rates.

Mukherjee: Understood. Thank you.


Deeper PF cut will help in long term

This article was originally published in Postnoon on December 14, 2012. Co-author: Purvee Hetamsaria

There was urgency in Abhi’s voice when he called to ask me if he could see me. I immediately agreed. He was in my office before I could get myself a cup of coffee from the Cafe. What is it Abhi?, I asked. “You look disturbed”.

Abhi: Yes. I am disturbed. And who wouldn’t be? My salary just went down because of the Government’s action.

Nicky: Really? What did the Government do now?

Abhi: The Employees Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) of India has come out with a notification which says that now we will have to contribute towards the provident fund on the basis of allowances as well. This will reduce my take home salary.

Nicky: Ah that! You should be happy. Don’t think short term. Think long term. You are forced to save more.

Abhi: What do you mean?

Nicky: See, earlier, you and your employer, both contributed 12% each, on your Basic plus Dearness Allowance (DA) only, towards the EPF. Now, suppose your Basic plus DA is ₹4,000. The contribution will amount to ₹480 from you and ₹480 from your employer. There is no contribution on the allowances that you receive. If your allowances total up to ₹2,000, your take home salary will be ₹4,000 minus ₹480 plus ₹2,000. That is ₹5,520. And your total contribution to EPFO is ₹960.

Abhi: Yes, this is exactly what happens in my case right now.

Nicky: But with the new circular, contribution will need to be made on Basic plus DA plus Allowances. This means, your contribution will be on ₹6,000. Hence, the total contribution to the EPFO by your employer (₹720) and you (₹720) will be ₹1440. This way, you take home only ₹5,280 but you save ₹480 more and your total income goes up by ₹240, the extra contribution made by the employer! So you should be happy.

Abhi: Hmmm…you are right, but I am still not happy about the lower take home salary. You know that I recently got married and have bought a flat too, which comes with a fat EMI.

Nicky (laughing): True Abhi. But saving for your old age is important too. And many employees structure their salary to increase allowances and decrease PF contributions. This means that they are not saving enough. Also, because of higher contributions to the PF account, you will be able to claim a higher amount as section 80c deductions in income tax.

Abhi: But the limit for section 80c is ₹1 lakh right?

Nicky: Yes. So it will be beneficial to you only if you are not able to meet the ₹1 lakh through your life insurance and existing PF contributions.

Abhi: So overall, you are saying, the government may not have done such a bad thing! Well, I am not happy, but I do understand the government’s point of view now. I’ll have to think of rationing certain expenditures though!

For investors or govt?

This article was originally published in Postnoon on December 7, 2012

“So Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) of India is launching a new Unit Linked Insurance Plan (ULIP)?” asked Srikanth.

“Yes. So the newspapers and news channels have reported”, I replied.

Srikanth: I remember, ULIPs were really popular a couple of years back. Everyone was talking about it, investing in it. Then suddenly, they disappeared from the investments arena. Why? What happened?

Me: Well, as the regulations stood way back in 2010, the costs to the investors were huge in the case of ULIPs. The distributors and agents got large selling commissions, as high as 40% of the first year premium, and hence many of them pushed the product, mis-informed and mis-sold it to the investors.

Srikanth: Wow…isn’t that wrong?

Me: It is. Hence the investors protested, once they realized that they had a product which was a sure way to lose money. Following the protests and a legal battle with the capital markets’ regulator, SEBI, the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority (IRDA), brought in new regulations regarding the costs and losses in the event an investor fails to pay subsequent premium installments. After this, ULIPs did not remain as lucrative for the agents as they were earlier. Hence they stopped pushing it to the investors. And the sheen faded.

Srikanth: Legal battle with SEBI?

Me: Yeah, SEBI claimed that ULIPs were Mutual Funds being sold as Insurance and hence they should have jurisdiction over ULIPs. Anyways, the result was a set of new regulations, which brought down the charges for the investors and increased the minimum lock-in period of ULIPS from three years to five years.

Earlier, most of the insurers charged higher during the initial years of the plan. But now, the charges have to be distributed evenly over all the years of the lock-in period. IRDA also mandated a minimum mortality cover and a minimum guaranteed return. The charges are capped between 2.25% to 4%.

Srikanth: That’s good for the investors. But not for the insurers and the distributors.

Me: That’s the reason the share of ULIPs has only gone downhill since 2010. LIC is now coming out with a ULIP product after almost two years. And even that may not be with the investors’ in mind. As Vivek Kaul points out in his article on, it could just be a ploy to help the government raise money through divestment. Since the investor’s may not be willing to pick up stocks in PSUs, LIC will bail out the government by picking up stake in those companies.

Srikanth: But why launch a ULIP product for it?

Me: That’s because the premiums collected through traditional plans cannot be invested in the Equity markets completely. There is a cap of 15% on equity exposure for the traditional plans, according to the Insurance Act. However, in the case of ULIPs, the entire premium can be invested in equities.

Srikanth: Ah, so basically LIC may be hoodwinking the investors, in order to help the government.

Me: Hmmm…I did not think in that direction earlier. But after reading Vive Kaul’s article, I feel that may be the real story! Ultimately, the investors must do their homework before making any investment decision!

Debit Cards, Credit Convenience

This article was originally published in Postnoon on November 30, 2012

Laxmiamma was a happy soul. Instead of keeping her savings under the mattress, she had opened up a bank account and had started a recurring deposit on my insistence. The obligation of putting aside the money for the deposit every month, made her save more. Also, she had no choice when tempted to buy unnecessary food or household articles as there was no money lying around at home to do so. Now she had accumulated enough money to buy back her jewellery from the jeweller, which she had sold way back in 2002, when her husband died and she needed some money to tide over the bad times.

She invited me home to celebrate the liberation of her jewellery, over a cup of Irani chai and biscuits. While chit chatting with her about the weather, she told me that she needs to go to the bank to withdraw some cash the next day. I was surprised. In this day and age, who goes to the bank to withdraw cash, unless the amount is very large?

On being asked, she said, “then how else does one withdraw cash?”

Nicky: Haven’t you seen ATMs around?

Laxmiamma: I have heard about them, but I thought that those are not for people like us. I thought those are for the rich.

Nicky: Nonsense. It’s for everyone who has an account with the bank.

Laxmiamma: How? And what is an ATM? I have seen the large box like things around, but don’t know how that shells out cash!

Nicky: An ATM or an Automated Teller Machine is a machine which counts and gives out the amount of cash that you want, after ensuring that your bank account has the desired amount. Did you get a small card when you opened an account?

Laxmiamma: Yes I did. But I just kept it away safely.

Nicky: That is a Debit Card. The card carries a unique number, which is linked to your savings account. You can use this card to withdraw and deposit cash, transfer money to other accounts, pay your bills, look at your account balance and statement for the last few transactions, all through the ATM. You can even use this card at shops to pay. The money will be directly debited to your account, provided you have enough money in the account. So, you do not need to carry cash with you when you go shopping. But of course, you can’t use it when you shop at smaller establishments like kirana shops or vegetable carts.

Laxmiamma: Ah see, its of no use to me then! I don’t go to the malls like you.

Nicky: You miss the point. Apart from shopping, there are so many other uses of debit cards and ATM. You conveniently ignored that!

Laxmiamma (sheepishly): Uh…hmmm…I heard. I’ll use this card to withdraw cash from now on. But what about safety? Can anyone with my card withdraw money from my account?

Nicky: No. There will be a 4 digit password given to you from the bank. You need to key in that password for authenticating the transaction. Also, you can change this password if you want. Don’t share the password with anyone.

Laxmiamma: Ah…I forgot to tell you about this new recipe for karela burji…you might want to try it out!

Tax implications of buying versus renting

This article was originally published in Postnoon on November 23, 2012

Nicky: Oh hello Abhi! When did you come?

Abhi complained: I have been waiting for you since the past half an hour.

Nicky: You should have called before coming. I would have told you that I would be in a meeting. Anyways, tell me how is your new house? I am sorry, I could not come for the house warming ceremony.

Abhi: The house is good, comfortable. Actually I am here to discuss the tax implications of buying the house.

Nicky: What about it?

Abhi: Till last year, I was claiming Housing Rent Allowance (HRA) deduction under section 10(13A) of the income tax act. Am I still eligible to claim those?

Nicky: How can you? Since you are living in your own house, you are not paying any rent. So you cannot claim HRA as a deduction. It is treated as an income for you. But you can claim deductions for your Equated Monthly Installments (EMIs) on your home loan.

Abhi: How?

Nicky: The EMI is divided into the principal component and the interest component. The bank must have sent a statement to you with this break up. Or they will send it to you, if they haven’t done it yet. The principal component of up to Rs1 Lakh can be claimed under section 80c and the interest component of up to Rs1.5 Lakhs can be claimed under section 24b of the income tax act.

Abhi: But isn’t section 80c the same section where we claim our life insurance premium and provident fund (EPF) contributions?

Nicky: Yes, you are right. Hence the benefit of claiming the principal under section 80c is limited. In the initial years of the EMI payment, the principal component is very small. In the later years, when the principal component is larger, assuming that your salary goes up with time, the entire 80c limit may be reached with EPF contributions and insurance premiums alone.

The interest deductions do help in saving significant amounts of tax though. If you fall under the 30% tax bracket and pay more than Rs1.5 lakhs as interest, you end up saving Rs45,000 in taxes.

Abhi: So even if I am not able to claim the HRA, a home loan still helps me reduce my tax burden.

Nicky: Absolutely. Infact you did a very good job of buying a house in Hyderabad. A recent research done by has shown that Hyderabad is one of the most affordable places to buy a house for a professional.

Abhi: Oh really? I am glad I made the right decision.

Will Social Media give birth to the next Warren Buffet?

This article was first Published in Hindu BusinessLine on 25th November, 2012. Co-author: Khemchand H. Sakaldeepi

While taking a hard look at the evolution of human civilisation one cannot help but notice how the financial markets indicate our evolution more than anything else.

To quote Prof. Niall Ferguson of Harvard University, in his book “The Ascent of Money”, “financial history is the essential back-story behind all history”.

It is a well know fact that every bull – bear run is largely correlated with something major happening in the world.

The invention of electricity, use of small motors that power home and kitchen appliances, the advent of television and computers, etc. have all impacted how financial markets behave. These events have changed how the world is connected and does business, for good. Today the biggest driver in the way we connect and do business is social media.

Any student or practitioner of finance would have come across the term “Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH)”. It essentially says that the stock market is “informationally efficient”, that is, the current prices reflect all the available information. Flow of information is one of the most important ingredients in making the markets efficient.

While EMH is one of the most profound theories in the history of finance, of late, it is also the most disproved.

The recent global financial crisis has further raised questions about the rationality of the EMH. Warren Buffet argues that the preponderance of value investors among the world’s best money managers rebuts the claim of EMH proponents.

Similarly, former Federal Reserve Chairman, Paul Volcker said that it’s “clear that among the causes of the recent financial crisis was an unjustified faith in rational expectations [and] market efficiencies”.

In fact there are many investors who scout for opportunities (read: inefficiencies) with the changing business environment and capitalise on information advantage.

Traders at Wall Street are known to use Flash Trading – which allows certain market participants to see incoming orders to buy or sell securities very slightly earlier than the general market participants, typically 30 milliseconds, in exchange for a fee.

Lately, some of the major financial institutions are latching onto the fact there might be something to the information that is available in social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Blogging sites, etc.

For instance, a research done by Bollen et. al. (2011), published in the Journal of Computational Science, looked at around ten million Tweets posted between March and December of 2008 to see if the micro blogs could be used to predict the market.

The authors sorted the Tweets into different indices – calm, alert, sure, vital, kind and happy – and compared them to the market. The researchers found that the calmness index can predict with 87 per cent accuracy whether the Dow Jones Industrial Average goes up or down for a time horizon between two and six days.

Certain proprietary terminals have, over the past few years, kept various traders informed with live new feeds. They, however, have not come close to creating a way to instantaneously monitor the pulse of the world and observe the stream of human consciousness. The news regarding the death of Osama Bin Laden first entered the public sphere through a tweet and a tool called DataMinr was able to spot this with just 19 tweets on the subject.

The company then issued a signal to their clients, alerting them to this important piece of information. It would have been over 20 minutes before that story appeared on traditional news sites.

Access to a data stream that can beat traditional media sources by over 20 minutes requires no explanation as to its value for traders and investors. Speed matters.

It will just be an understatement to say that there will be an increasing relation between social media and finance. Traders and fund managers are relying on social signs and sentiment analysis to base their decisions on.

There is no doubt that technologies are improving and challenging the finance and banking industry. In the language of Analytics, the more data you have the better your decisions are and better is your competitive advantage. And social media can do just that.

So the point to note here is that in this era of Social Networks, it has become essential for any budding investor to be able to analyse the social data if she/he wants to “get the pulse of the market”.

Plan your retirement

This article was originally published in Postnoon on November 16, 2012

Why should we plan for our retirement?, asked an indignant Mr. Mukherjee. “Professor, you don’t understand our Indian culture and values. My son will take care of me when my wife and I grow old. We are giving him the best possible education, so that when he starts earning, I can retire in peace. He is a good son. And, I too save some money every month. My wife runs the household very efficiently”.

Prof. Nicky: I agree Mr. Mukherjee. I am not denying that your son is a good son and your wife is very efficient. All I am saying is that, why do you want to depend on your son in your old age? What if he gets a job in another city or another country? Are you willing to move with him? Do you want to leave all your friends and family behind, so that your son can take care of you?

Mukherjee: Not at all. I will not leave Hyderabad. I have lived here all my life. But my son will not take a job anywhere else. He will take up a job in Hyderabad only.

Prof. Nicky: How can you be so sure? He may get transferred, he may get a better opportunity somewhere else. Would you want him to sacrifice all the opportunities for you?

Mukherjee: No I would not like that. But even if he lives somewhere else, he can still send money for us.

Prof. Nicky: Yes he can. But what if he finds it difficult? He will have his own family to fend for. Everything is so expensive now a days. Maintaining two different households may be difficult for him. Since you are already saving some money every month, all that I am asking you to do is invest it in a way which will help you lead a better life during your retirement.

Mukherjee: But even the money that I am putting aside every month, in a recurring deposit, will be available to me when I retire. What is the difference between saving and retirement planning?

Prof. Nicky: Finally you have asked a relevant question. Saving is good. It gives you returns close to the prevailing interest rates, whether you put your money in fixed deposits or recurring deposit. You save what you have left after all your monthly expenses.

On the other hand, retirement planning determines how much you must invest every month, so that you don’t have to change your lifestyle much after your retire. The planning includes planning your investments in different asset classes like mutual funds, insurance, equities, real estate etc., so that you achieve your financial goals.

Mukherjee: But who will do it for me? Will you do it?

Prof. Nicky: No, I will not do it. There are certified financial planners, who will do the planning for you for a fee. You only need to ensure that you find a good financial planner who is qualified and experienced.

Mukherjee: There seems to be merit in what you are saying. Let me think about it!

Nicky: Whatever…

Gold on my mind

This article was originally published in Postnoon on November 9, 2012

Diwali is round the corner and the retailers are trying everything from discounts to promotions to free gifts, to lure the customers into buying. Gold has a special place in the hearts of the Indian customers. Buying gold on ‘Dhanteras’ is considered auspicious and is a part of our culture. But, apart from heart, the mind also has a role to play in buying gold. Historically, gold is seen as a hedge against inflation and less risky than the other asset classes.

In recent times, gold is also being seen as The Performer! In the past 10 years, gold has given a return of approximately 18% per annum, and close to 25% per annum over the last five year period, on a compounded basis. That is much higher than the returns on the other popular classes of investments, be it equities, debt or mutual funds. So buying gold not just gratifies the heart, but also the mind.

To tap on this opportunity, Gold Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) was introduced on the Indian stock exchanges in 2007. Since then, it has become a very popular product with the current Assets Under Management (AUM) in Gold ETFs being more than Rs10,000 crores.

Buying gold for investment purposes, in its physical forms, comes with associated costs like making charges (jewellery), storage and insurance costs (jewellery, coins, bars) or risks of theft. These are reduced to zero in the case of gold ETFs, while giving returns that are very close to the returns of the physical asset, as each unit of the ETF is equivalent to 1 gram of 99.5% pure Gold. There are transaction costs but they are very small.

The attractiveness of the fund is also due to the fact that they are tax efficient. They are not subject to sales tax, value added tax, securities transactions tax or the wealth tax, which the physical gold is subject to. The ETFs can also be exchanged for 99.5% pure Gold when needed, in multiples of 1 kg. The prices at which the transactions take place are transparent and real time, just like stocks on the stock exchange.

Both NSE and BSE have announced that they will hold special trading sessions for gold ETFs alone on Sunday, Dhanteras, November 11th, from 11.00am to 3.30pm. BSE has also announced to waive off any transaction costs as well on that day. So this Diwali, make a new beginning, by investing in Gold ETFs. Even if it is only for 1gm of Gold. It’s just a better way of investing in gold.

Here’s wishing all the readers a very happy and prosperous Diwali!

Disclaimer: The author is not associated with any fund house or the exchanges offering Gold ETFs. The author has not yet invested in Gold through ETFs but plans to do it this Diwali.