Equities and compounding

In my last post I had written about the frequent wrong usage of Maths to create misconceptions in investing which are not factually true. One such glaring misconception is for investors to feel that there will be compounding returns on equity investments, at least over the long term. This is simply not true and I would have thought that most investors would be able to understand this. However, as I have got quite a few queries and requests for clarification, let me do so here.

To start with let us fundamentally understand what Compounding is. I have used the following definition from Investopedia:-

DEFINITION of ‘Compounding’

The ability of an asset to generate earnings, which are then reinvested in order to generate their own earnings. In other words, compounding refers to generating earnings from previous earnings.

Essentially compounding involves some positive return on your asset, irrespective of what the return might be. Due to this the absolute value of your investment will always be increasing. Note here that we are not talking of inflation and Real returns here. For example, if I have a FD of 1 lac Rs and it pays me an interest of 8 % today then at the end of 1 year I will have an amount of 1.08 Lacs. Now if inflation is also at 8 %, my real return ( interest rate – inflation rate) is 0 and I have not really gained anything in terms of my purchasing power through this investment. At the same time, the absolute value of my investment has definitely grown by 8000 Rs in the one year period. This 1.08 lacs becomes my principal amount in the next year and I earn interest on this new amount. So in effect, compounding entails my earning interest not only on the principal amount but also on the interest amount.

The usage of compounding logic works great with debt products where the interest rates are relatively stable. Take an FD as an example again. At 8 % interest rate your money will double in approximately 9 years, at 12 % rate it will double in approximately 6 years and so on. Your money always grows in absolute terms, ignore the real growth for this discussion.

Now let us look at equities and see if this logic can be sustained in the light of our knowledge of it. If you look at stock prices over a period of time, you will see that it is clearly not so. Let me give you some examples from well known companies and their share prices from fairly recent memory:-

  • ITC reached 400 Rs and is now down to 300 odd levels.
  • HUL went to 1000 and then declined to levels of 800.
  • Reliance has had negative growth over years, so has Tata Steel.
  • Some company shares like Kingfisher Airlines have become penny stocks today.

There are also many examples of company shares having done extremely well and generate spectacular returns. My point here is simple – equities can give great growth but the way to understand that is not through the compounding principle. The growth in equity is non-linear and carries serious risk with it. Now at this point, people may tell you that over the long term of 15-20 years the compounding logic will hold true for equities. Sorry, it does not – if you bought the shares of Deccan Aviation at 146 Rs in the IPO , you have lost this money pretty much forever, never mind how long you are going to wait.

When I think about why there is such a great misconception about something really straightforward, I could come up with the following reasoning in my mind:-

  1. Most people invest in equity through Mutual Funds. As a MF scheme maintains a portfolio of stocks, the overall NAV of the scheme would normally increase in a reasonably good market, which we have had in recent years.
  2. Of course, the above can change in a prolonged poor market, but not many of today’s investors have had this experience. 2008 through 2010 was such a phase but has been mostly forgotten now.
  3. The usage of CAGR term, somehow makes one think that equity investments compound. This, of course, is complete nonsense but I have seen many sensible people believe this. CAGR is an artificial construct to understand annual returns, it in no way says that such returns are stable and not even that they are positive. In fact you can have negative CAGR and negative IRR / XIRR quite easily.

So, if it is clear by now that compounding logic is irrelevant to equities then how do we go about financial planning with equities as an investment asset class? I will answer that in a future post. For now, do understand that you cannot just hope that you will invest in stocks and it will give you an XIRR of 15-20 % because that has been the historical returns in the index. I really wish life were that simple for me and you, but it does not work like that.

Take heart though – we can make great returns from equity, by understanding the correct ways of investing in it.

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19 thoughts on “Equities and compounding

  1. Very nice article and frankly speaking I used to have the same question as to how compounding is applicable in an investment instrument like equity. I was always shy to ask assuming that it may be a very silly question. Glad to know that I was not wrong

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  2. Thank you for your comment. Yes, compounding does not work well for explaining the growth in equities. Equity as an asset class is a great investment for growth but the reasons for growth are different and how that needs to be used is again very different from the Debt asset class.

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  3. Well said. Please please please keep it up for us . We readers may less in number but for myself it is universe on this blog

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  4. Yes … Agreed that compounding will not work as there is no guarantee of return but there is certainly some % return every year so compounding is variable in equity..

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  5. great post on compounding it really does help speed up capital accumulation in the long run, feel free to visit my blog on more investing and economics ideas

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  6. Pick any 15 yrs from stock market and check CAGR returns of these 15 yrs. And all these guys who have commented in favour of this post need to check the meaning of CAGR.

    Obviously there is no guarantee in Equities, but in the long run 15-20yrs it has given good positive CAGR returns. Specific stocks might give you negative returns, few stocks might show you -ve returns for 10-15-20yrs too. But when it comes to broader market ie. sensex, nifty or for that matter good MFs , Stats of last 15-20-30 yrs are available on many websites. They have given positive CAGR returns.

    Please all those who believe Equities don’t give CAGR returns in long run can check money control, valuerrsearch and many other websites and Google the definition of compounding.

    Just to quote my example I had invested 1lakh in ICICI Pru Balanced Advantage Fund in 2010 and my CAGR returns are 13.8 % till today.

    If this is not CAGR you guys are talking about . Then sorry I shouldn’t b commenting here.

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    • Actually you guys want to say that Equities don’t give linear positive absolute returns and not that Equities don’t give CAGR returns

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    • It surely is not compounding my friend.

      You bought some units on an asset/ product whose price happened to increase over the period of time due increase in underlying value of asset.

      The CAGR is just a representative rate derived from the price difference happened over the period, to enable it’s comparison with products which do actually compound i.e. bank FD.

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