The financial markets generate a lot of number on a per second basis. There are people who have made it a profession to convert this information into trends, buy-sell signals, charts and pivot tables. Over the last 18 years of financial journalism, I have realised that every number has a story to tell. And these numbers as a trend normally never lie. I am forever looking for these trends.
Sankaran Naren has an enduring nightmare: The crowd is right, he is wrong, and nobody wants the stocks he has stockpiled.
It is a genuine fear for someone who likes to go against the grain. The nightmares will continue for the time being because Naren’s current favourite is Bharti Airtel. This stock has been a poor performer for the past one year. It has lost 40 percent of its value in the past year during which the Sensex moved up 15 percent. And Naren has invested close to 10 percent of the portfolio for one of his funds, Dynamic, in Bharti.
For most part of his life, Naren, chief investment officer, equities, ICICI Prudential Mutual Fund, has picked up and bet big on stocks that have been out of favour. If it wasn’t for his record, his bet on Bharti would look like a loser’s gamble. But his numbers speak otherwise.
Naren started managing the Rs 1,800-crore Discovery fund immediately after joining ICICI Prudential in October 2004. Mrinal Singh took over from him in February 2011. According to Morningstar India, a mutual fund analytics company, over the past three years, the fund has given an annual return of 13.88 percent, one of the highest in a flat market. The other fund in Naren’s stable is the Rs 4,000-crore Dynamic fund, which has shown a similar performance: Over the past three years, it has given an annual return of 10.19 percent, against a category average of 5 percent.
Cash as A weapon
Contrasts make humans interesting, and the Bharti call exemplifies that.
Naren is not afraid to remain in cash; the idea is to realise profits and look for another buying opportunity when the stock cools off a bit.
The Dynamic fund is one of the very few that can park itself into cash to the extent of 35 percent of its assets. Fund managers do not like to get into cash because it can mean either a missed opportunity, or the fund manager doesn’t have any interesting ideas. Most funds take cash positions to a maximum limit of around 10 percent of assets, or it depends on the mandate of the fund.
ICICI Mutual Fund has benchmarked the cash positions to the price/book value of the Nifty. If this crosses 3.5 times, Dynamic can utilise its cash position to the extent of 35 percent of assets. The fund used this structure in September and December 2010. This was done when the markets were trading at very high levels, and Naren thought the valuations were not sustainable. The idea of getting into a massive amount of cash has given Dynamic a big advantage.
Naren is also one of the few fund managers to use derivatives to make his portfolio more defensive. Using derivatives hurt him in 2009, when the market went up 70 percent in a few months. But that is the nature of the business. People who know him well understand that once he thinks it through he will not shy away from a bold call.
“Apart from taking sector bets, Naren doesn’t shy away from aggressively trading his large-cap investments,” says Vickey Mehta, senior research analyst at Morningstar India. Naren was buying in the pharma sector long before the great domestic tailwind for pharmaceuticals became apparent after 2008. He built a large position in metals in 2011, and that helped him beat the index in early 2012.
Naren spent most of his time playing bridge at the IIT Madras campus, and was clear that he wanted to play the equity markets as well. While in college, whatever money he earned he invested in IPOs. And, on getting a job after completing college, he invested his first salary in L&T.
He was a bit of an information hound at that time, and continues to be one: Around 15 newspapers await his attention every day; he devours anything that tastes like business information, especially balance sheets; he is known to go through the wrappings of his evening bhelpuri or sandwich in search of information; close colleagues say he carries balance sheets on his annual vacation.
Sometime in 1996, he started working with a Chennai broker and joined a group that was interested in equity markets, but there was no form to their investment style. Naren helped the group evolve to a bottom-up style of investing. He has kept in touch with this group over the past 16 years, and some of them are his closest friends.
The equity markets had just opened up to foreign mutual funds and Kothari Pioneer, the first private sector Indian mutual fundwas looking to build an equities team in Chennai. (Kothari Pioneer was taken over by Franklin Templeton in 2002.) Naren approached them for the position of a fund manager, but Kothari Pioneer was looking for someone from Mumbai.
Meanwhile, Siva Subramanian KN, who was working at IDBI, Mumbai, was looking to head back to his hometown Chennai. With a solid background and his experience in Mumbai, he fit Kothari Pioneer’s requirements and joined the firm. Later, he became its chief investing officer.