The Commodity Conundrum

nsel_logoAbout 2 months back someone asked me to invest in a new commodity product that was guaranteed to return 12-16% a year, I cut them off before they gave me more details and said “no thank you”. I told them I would not touch commodities with a 10 foot pole after being burned by the commodity markets in 2006…December 7, 2006 to be exact. I remember that day vividly because I woke up feeling like a million bucks because it was the day I was getting my marriage registered at the Bombay Courts. I grabbed the newspaper and immediately felt like someone punched me in the gut. The FMC (Forward Markets Commission) had announced they were banning hedge funds in the commodity markets.

The FMC is the regulatory authority for commodities like SEBI (Securities and Exchange Board of India) is for equities. I use the term “regulatory” very loosely, to say the commodity markets are politically controlled would be an understatement. In India the largest industry in terms of revenue and people employed is agriculture, which brings a whole host of political people trying to “help” the farmer.

In mid 2006, the Minister of Agriculture was getting intense heat from the rest of the government for the rise in essential commodity prices which saw onion prices go through the roof. The Minister of Agriculture is none other then political heavy-weight Sharad Pawar. The Minister of Agriculture decided to act via the FMC and ban all hedge funds from trading on the National Commodity and Derivatives Exchange (NCDEX) and Multi Commodity Exchange (MCX). The FMC was more concerned about NCDEX since that is where many of the Indian agro commodities trade. Our fund and about 10 others were out of business overnight – December 7, 2006. We had dealt with the FMC for many months prior and it was clear they were not calling the shots, they were being told what to do. In the crossfire the hedge funds were collateral damage.

Enough about my sob story, back to this new commodity product being pushed by many of the big brokerage houses. The product was traded on the National Spot Exchange Limited (NSEL) which was backed by Jignesh Shah of Financial Technologies. At MProfit we were increasingly getting requests to create an import template for these contracts so people could track their investments in our software. When people showed us the contract notes where the buy and sell prices had already been established, that should have been a red flag. However, like everyone else we figured it was legitimate because it had the stellar reputation of the Financial Technology group behind it. Not to mention the equity markets were dead so people must have moved to this new exchange to trade the markets…wrong.

When the NSEL issue came to light I had a chat with the head of a large commodity broker who had some exposure to the product, rather his clients has exposure to the product. He was very adamant that it was the government’s fault (not true) and that clients would get their full money back (pretty sure that ain’t happening). The minute I heard that the NSEL might not have the money to cover all the investors I knew right away the goods were probably never there, either fictitious warehouse receipts or sub-standard commodities were being warehoused.

I’ve heard from several people that some of the brokers were unofficially pushing it as a commodity PMS (Portfolio Management Service) which is ILLEGAL in India. Equity PMS products are legal since they come under the purview of SEBI, whereas the FMC banned PMS products in commodities on December 7, 2006 (yes, that date is etched in my forehead!). And just recently, someone forwarded me a product presentation slide deck for a commodity PMS being offered by Forefront (click for preso). It mentions the fund is registered under SEBI’s Alternative Investment Funds (AIF) rules, but commodities fall under the FMC lens. So who has jurisdiction over this fund if things get out of control? Everything looks great on paper until the shit hits the fan.

This type of jurisdictional conundrum is what caused the NSEL to spiral out of control. No one had regulation over the spot markets which is what the NSEL was all about – hence their name National Spot Exchange Limited.


The Motilal M50 ETF is a Bad Remix

motilal_M50-1Three years ago Motilal Oswal launched it’s asset management company (AMC) and decided to focus on exchange traded funds (ETFs) as opposed to mutual funds. An AMC is just a fancy description for a financial institution that is selling mutual funds. ETFs are similar to mutual funds but instead of buying them from a mutual fund company you buy them on an exchange such as the National Stock Exchange (NSE) hence the name exchange traded funds.

The first product out of the Motilal Oswal AMC stable was the Nifty M50 (my blog post from 3 years ago). It launched in July 2010 and was touted as taking the 50 stocks that make up the Nifty index and then “remixed according to Motilal’s predefined methodology based on fundamental performance and valuations” – their words not mine. In the marketing material for the M50 it showed how the M50 kicked the Nifty index to the curb in terms of performance.

So here we are three years later and how has the M50 done as compared to it’s main competitor the Goldman Sachs Nifty BeES? Since the M50 marketing material compared itself to the Nifty Index I add that to comparison as well.

After year 1 (July 30, 2010 to July 29, 2011)
Motilal M50 -5.90% (yes, negative 5.90%)
GS Nifty BeES +3.72%
Nifty Index +2.13%
The delta between the M50 and BeES was 9.62% (962 bps)

After year 2 (July 30, 2010 to July 30, 2012)
Motilal M50 -12.09%
GS Nifty BeES -3.51%
Nifty Index -3.13%
The delta between the M50 and BeES was 8.58% (858 bps)

After year 3 (July 30, 2010 to July 30, 2013)
Motilal M50 -5.40%
GS Nifty BeES +7.09%
Nifty Index +7.22%
The delta between the M50 and BeES was 12.49% (1249 bps)

The numbers speak for themselves, from the very beginning the M50 has underperformed as compared to the GS Nifty BeES and the Nifty Index. When it was launched it was marketed as India’s first actively managed ETF, which just means it’s a regular mutual fund that is traded on the exchanges. In the end it comes down to the fund manager and the stock selection methodology, which based on the M50 numbers has done horrible and definitely something I would not recommend investing in.

Brokers and wealth advisors hate me because my personal preference is toward index trackers such as the Nifty BeES which passively replicates the Nifty index at a lower cost. The expense ratio for the M50 is 1.25% (125 bps) whereas the Nifty BeES is 50 bps. As a comparison some Vanguard ETFs in the US have expense ratios as low as 5 bps, such as the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund.

However, the news is not all gloomy for Motilal’s AMC, they do have one of the best performing ETFs on the market today – the Motilal Oswal MoST Nasdaq 100. Which as the name indicates tracks the Nasdaq index, it’s probably the best low cost instrument in India to get exposure to the US markets.

Epilogue – As I was gathering content for this blog post, I saw several articles (here and here) indicating that the fund manager Rajnish Rastogi for many of the Motilal ETFs including the Nifty M50 had recently passed away. RIP.

Personal Finance Mirage


MProfit competitive slide (click for a larger image)

It’s another day and another personal finance startup shuts down in India, this time it’s InvestoPresto. Several Indian focused technology blogs (NextBigWhat and TechCircle) have reported a couple other names of startups that have recently shut down – Moneysights and That’s only half the story, as part of a VC pitch deck from several years ago I listed all of MProfit’s competitors and honestly I think only half of them are still around.

It would be easy to blame the ecosystem, government regulations, the VC industry or the lack of consumer awareness but then you are just kidding yourself. Forget about India for a moment, I know its an emerging market with 1.3 billion people and the opportunity is so ripe but let’s focus on America.  Please tell me how many internet focused financial startups in the US have made it big either via a large user base or an exit? The answer would be simply one – which exited at USD 180 million to Intuit.

For all the talk about Americans having a do-it-yourself culture for financial services that assumption is just plain wrong. Most Americans like Indians have no clue where to invest and don’t have the long term disciple for personal finance. Americans love houses and cars. Indians love insurance and gold.

So back to India. In the 4 years we have run MProfit, there are 3 general buckets of potential consumers that visit our site or call us. 1. Looking for tips/signals 2. Technical analysis 3. Portfolio management tool. The first group has been misled thinking that tips or trading signals actually work, they work till they stop working. I could go on and on about them but I’ll spare you the rant. Group two are investors that are putting some thought into their trading/investing style and a group we don’t target as there are many tools already available.

Group three is where we spend the bulk of our time and really try to understand what customer wants. We do have a segment of our customers that use MProfit and crave it, but it’s a small segment. And, that’s the trap that many personal finance startups face – a revenue generating product with limited appeal. We are still trying to create a product that has mass market appeal which people need like oxygen and willing to pay for.

No doubt the market is brutal but I still think around the world, no one has cracked the product/market fit for a comprehensive personal finance tool. A startup’s sole purpose is to figure out the market and create a product for it. The question is whether the need for such a tool exists or is it just a mirage?

A New Breed of "Banks"

bank-logos2Money – it’s been around for 1000’s of years and drives most people to do things, good or bad. When you have money, you also need banks to provide a safe place for people to deposit their money. These banks then turn around and lend this money to others. This simple business model is how banks have operated for 1000’s of years and thrived on the difference of what interest they gave to depositors and what interest they received on outstanding loans. Over time, banks started to offer more and more products to generate more and more revenues. Many of these products were not that simple and in the process were given a fancy name – structured products, which just means they are customized for each customer based on their specific needs. Then BOOM, the financial markets collapsed and many of the banks faced near bankruptcy because of their loosing lending practices and their structured products which started to come undone. In the aftermath of this financial carnage a new group of “banks” are emerging in the US to get back to basics in banking.

The four that have emerged include – Bluebird, GoBank, Moven and Simple. All are pretty similar in that they have low fees, no physical locations, heavy use of technology but a couple are not actual banks. To be called a bank you need to be a member of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) which means the deposits are insured by the US Government for up to USD 250,000.

Bluebird – Bluebird is a partnership between American Express & Walmart, the distribution strength of Walmart and the credit card experience of American Express (AmEx) is what makes this offering interesting. The product is a no-fee checking account that has a debit card. The target audience is low-income shoppers who have a tough time getting a regular credit card. Bluebird is a bank since at the height of the financial crisis AmEx was turned into a bank holding company so it could accept money from the Federal Reserve.

GoBank – Green Dot first made it big with it’s prepaid cards it offered to low-income consumers, then it forayed into other parts of the banking sector. Green Dot acquired Bonneville Bank, an FDIC member bank, and renamed it to Green Dot Bank. GoBank is brand of the Green Dot Bank. The offering is similar to Bluebird in that it offers an online checking account, debit card and access to most ATM’s in the US.

Moven – Moven started out as Movenbank then changed its name because it’s not a bank. It has partnered with an unnamed FDIC member bank. Moven offers the usual banking products but really shines around the money management tools it offers. MoneyPulse is one of their tools which tells you where you are spending your money. Moven was started by Brett King who has authored several books on the future of banking, his latest book is called Bank 3.0.

Simple – Simple also started out with a different name, it was first known as BankSimple. But it also is not a bank and has partnered with The Bancorp Bank, a member FDIC bank. Early on Simple attracted a lot of attention as one of it’s early founders Alex Payne was an early employee at Twitter. Alex left Twitter to startup Simple which was seen as a stamp of approval for Simple in that it solves a real world problem. Alex has since left the company. I signed up for the service but I really don’t use it much since I don’t live in the US and most of my transactions are Rupee denominated, however the overall interface has definitely got some great eye candy.

Bottom line – Most of these new age banks are offering a convenient mobile platform via iOS and Android devices to allow consumers to interact with their bank information. In addition, most of them have spent a large amount of time and resources on the UI of their website and mobile apps. However, I still believe it’s early days with these banks and feel they need to also address the investment portfolio part as well. By adding the investment piece, it creates an end to end solution which many consumers are still looking for.

It Worked Before

jcp-logoBack in November 2011, Ron Johnson head of retail at Apple moved over to JC Penney as it’s CEO. Ron had already been at Apple for 11 years and made bank as he watched the stock zoom from around $25 in January 2000 to over $375 in November 2011. It was time for him to move on and JC Penney is where he decided to work his magic and transform it into “the Apple of department store chains”. His resume reads like a Fortune 500 baller – Stanford University, Harvard Business School, Target (struck the deal with Michael Graves), Apple (created the Genius Bar concept)…jeez, JC Penney had found their savior.

Based on his past work experience it seemed like it was a slam dunk that JC Penney was going to crush all the other department store chains like Sears, Dillard’s and Kohl’s. However, after a brief 17 month stint Ron Johnson was fired this past week from JC Penney and the board reinstated Mike Ullman as it’s CEO. It ended so quickly before it even got started, but revenues fell over 20% and institutional investors headed for the exit – the stock is down over 50% since Ron was made CEO. So what really happened?

Simple, the board felt that one guy could rejuvenate the company’s fortunes because it worked before for Ron. The board failed to realize it’s about the overall team and also the right market sentiment sometimes called timing or luck which most people tend to negate. Remember Jon Corzine? Goldman Sachs CEO whiz turned Senator, who became the CEO of MF Global and within a short period bankrupted the company. His strategy was to implement the same trading style he employed at Goldman Sachs, the difference is that Goldman Sachs had a risk management team in place whereas MF Global only had a single dude with an Excel sheet to manage the risk.

Ron was probably a rock star at Apple because of Steve Jobs’s unrelenting focus on products and simplicity. Even Jobs was not a one man show, he needed a designer like Jony Ive on his team to help dream up the amazing products that Apple would sell through their retail stores. When I moved to India in 2005, I was part of an algorithmic trading fund that launched a product in 2006 and we collected over Rs. 200 crores (USD 50 million) in a matter of months. I still get pitched by other algo traders wondering how we got so much money in a short period and honestly it was just timing. It was early 2006 and the Indian equity markets were headed for the moon and several private banks had started their retail banking operations. We went through the due diligence process for the banks and got some private investors to invest in the fund. Then one day we get a call from one of the banks and our algo product was approved for distribution to their clients. BOOM, that opened up the flood gates and the money just poured into the fund.

Would it work today? No, the regulatory environment is very different. Back then banks were getting 2% commissions which today is no longer allowed. In addition, retail investors are more risk averse today then they were back in 2006. Just because it worked back then does not mean it will work again.  It’s similar to the statement all mutual fund companies makes in their marketing – “past performance is not a indicator of future performance”…so, so true.

Personal Finance Fiasco


Sometimes you know the truth but don’t want to think about it, because it hurts or goes against everything you believe in. I’ve always had a keen interest with the financial markets, whether reading The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune or watching CNBC. But, one area I always thought was a bit murky was the area of giving personal finance advice.

Many of the magazines such as Kiplinger’s Personal Finance would scream “10 stocks to help you retire” or “make your 401(k) work harder for you” to attract readers. But, when you would read the articles you realize it’s pretty worthless information. And yet every time I would read an article along the same genre and expect different results…stupid I guess. I knew the advice was mostly wrong but I didn’t want to believe it.

My eyes were opened when I was watching the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and he had Helaine Olen on as a guest. After the show, I downloaded her book “Pound Foolish” where she slams the entire personal finance industry for providing worthless information. It’s pretty clear she’s not looking to make friends and is just speaking the truth.

The whole “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” line of books – apparently the Rich Dad never existed. Wow, is all I can say. If you really did follow his advice and took on massive debt to buy houses all over the US, then welcome to the great housing bust of 2008. Feels good don’t it! Even Robert Kiyosaki the author of “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” got hit by the housing bust, one of his companies filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy in late 2012.

The book goes on to mention almost every personal finance guru – David Bach, Suze Orman, Dave Ramsey and many others. Bach was the guy that talked about skipping that cafe latte at Starbucks and instead saving the money. Overnight, he was on every morning talk show speaking about the “Latte Factor”. Honestly, if you are that hard pressed for $4.00 a day you got bigger issues and listening to some joker on TV for financial advice is the least of your concerns.

After reading the book you realize people are looking for quick and simple answers. However, many financial products sold are complex for a simple reason – to hide the fee structure. I’ll never understand why people work 40-80 hours a week for a paycheck and then take zero time to understand their personal finance well being. Stop the madness and start small, take one hour a week and start to understand your money situation and investments. Nobody gives a damn about your money more than you.


Co-pay for Financial Advisors?

I think everyone can agree that making money is not easy, but what is even more difficult is managing it. One area within the financial services sector that is ripe for disruption is the multi-trillion dollar wealth management business. Even with all the gee-whiz technology of the internet, there has yet to emerge a company that has made a serious dent in this space. Of course, there is which aggregates all your financial data and then provides recommendations to you but doesn’t really help with the wealth management piece.

The idea of having a wealth manager, financial advisor or private banker looking after your money sounds very alluring. Typically, these managers charge you based on the assets under management (AUM) they supervise, so if they charge 1% and you have USD 1,000,000 you will be paying them USD 10,000 a year. The fees range from .5% to 2.5% and that is just the management fee, there are also the fees that the products they recommend charge. This multi-layer fee structure is what most startups want to disrupt.

One of the most respected wealth managers is Goldman Sachs Private Wealth Management. Never heard of them? There is a reason, you need a minimum of USD 100 million in liquid investments to even open an account. They don’t need to advertise because they get many of their clients from the various deals they advise on around the world – M&A, private equity, restructuring and public offerings. So, who are some of the new kids on the block challenging the old boys network of Wall Street?  Betterment, FutureAdvisor, Personal Capital and Wealthfront.

Betterment, Personal Capital and Wealthfront all charge a percentage of the AUM – Betterment (.15%), Personal Capital (~.80%) and Wealthfront (.25%). FutureAdvisor charges a fixed cost whether you have USD 10 or USD 10 million, the most expensive plan is USD 195 a year.  All these ventures want to re-create for the wealth management space by relying heavily on technology and try to minimize the amount of human interaction with an advisor.

Of all of them, I believe Personal Capital might have a shot since it still relies on a traditional advisor but it’s fee structure is essentially the same as existing wealth managers. Having a slick user interface with great graphics might work for but in the wealth management space having access to an advisor on demand is really the core of the business. Working on a clients overall asset allocation is only one piece of the pie. So, is there a better model?

The existing old school wealth managers charge a hefty percentage and provide advisors whenever a client calls and even provide access to specialists for areas such as taxation and succession planning. The clients are happy but pay a heavy price. The new age websites want to limit access to advisors and use technology to streamline the advice. However, by taking a page from the health insurance playbook and implementing a co-pay system it might bridge the gap. A quick recap of the insurance industry co-payment system:

A type of insurance policy where the insured pays a specified amount of out-of-pocket expenses for health-care services such as doctor visits and prescriptions drugs at the time the service is rendered, with the insurer paying the remaining costs

A co-pay system could provide the happy balance between a wealth management firm and its clients. The management fee would be similar to the monthly/yearly insurance premium you would pay. Then if you have a specific question you would request access to an expert advisor and pay a small fee for the advice. If the advice generates additional fees for the management firm then great, if not then at least it would be able to partially cover the cost of the meeting. The co-pay system might be a radical idea but then again the industry is ripe for disruptive change.