Friday, October 31, 2014

Life's "Stop Loss" limits

When a soldier ventures into the battlefield to fight the enemy, at the command of his General, he hopes to win.  He knows he and his comrades may lose as well.  He is also aware that he may even die.  He has no luxury of settling for anything less. He cannot think of reducing his loss.  At stake is the ultimate sacrifice; laying down his life on the orders of his superiors. He cannot hope to cut his loss, come out of the battlefield and live for another day.  The General or his political masters are placed better.  They have the option of negotiating with the enemy, settle for something less and cut the losses. 

Dealers and traders operating in various markets are taught to use "Stop-Loss" or "Stop-Limit" orders.  These limits and instructions are to be meticulously followed to prevent the disastrous effects of steep fall or rise in markets, depending on the type of positions they hold while trading. A trader who does not follow such stipulated rules and enters into unauthorized trades is called a "rogue trader".  The story of Nick Leeson who made a loss of 1.3 billion dollars and brought down the Bearings Bank in 1995 is well known.  That another trader Jerome Kerviel made five times more losses (6.9 billion dollars) for his bank during 2006-08 and overtook him is also history.  Some of these episodes are shrouded in mystery as there are allegations that the concerned superiors turn a blind eye as long as the dealers violate the rules and make profit, but pillory them when losses occur. Nevertheless, sticking to rules like allocated prudential limits and following stop-loss boundaries is a sacred requirement for traders in various markets.

Is cutting losses or stop-loss concept applicable only to traders in the markets or does it have any relevance to real life?  Should we use the concept of "Stop-loss" in our lives or live like a rouge traders?  These questions beg for an answer.  For us in India, "stop-loss" is not at all a new concept. Ancient Indian wisdom has answered this question in the affirmative.  The references for using stop-loss limits are there for thousands of years.  One old saying goes thus:

सर्वनाशे समुत्पन्ने अर्धं त्यजति पण्डितः|  अर्धेन कुरुते कार्यं सर्वनाशं सुदुःसहः ||

Sarvanaashe samutpanne ardham tyajati panditah,
Ardhena kurute kaaryam, sarvanaasham suduhsahah.

"When confronted with a situation where probability of total loss stares at him, the wise man voluntarily surrenders one-half to save the other half. He then manages life with the saved half; it is impossible to bear total loss", is its summary. Many kings and rulers followed this meticulously and saved total washout.  Save whatever you can in a desperate situation and then build on on the remaining part of wealth or asset, is the essence of this saying.

A quote from "Hitopadesha"'s "Mitralabha" mentions:

त्यजेदेकं कुलस्यार्थे ग्रामस्यार्थे कुलं त्यजेत् |  ग्रामं जनपदस्यार्थे आत्मार्थे पृथिवीं त्यजेत्||

Tyajet ekam kulasyaarthe gramasyarthe kulam tyajet, gramam janapadasyaarthe aatmaarthe pruthiveem tyajet!

"One member of the family may be sacrificed for saving a family.  To save a village, an entire family can be sacrificed.  A village itself may be sacrificed to save a state or country.  But to protect oneself, the whole world may be sacrificed". 

Self preservation is the most important lesson even when using stop-loss concept and giving up other valuables.  What is the use of protecting anything if the protector himself is destroyed?  Save yourself even at the cost of everything else, says this well known verse.

There is a wonderful story that demonstrates the truth of this saying.  Once there was an argument between a king and his minister.  "A mother does anything for its offsprings", said the king.   "That is not true.  Even the mother believes in self-preservation", said the minister.  The king challenged the minister to prove it.  The minister got a monkey with its two infants captured and caged.  They were brought before the king.  The minister asked the cage to be kept in a tub and water to be slowly poured into the tub.  As the water reached up to the head level of the infants, the mother monkey lifted them and placed them on its head.  The king was elated and shouted that he was right.  As the water level kept on increasing and reached the nose of the mother monkey, she dropped the baby monkeys and stood on them to save itself.

Stop-loss limit is not just for traders.  It is for us in real life as well. As and when confronted with heavy losses, in any facet of life, we have to salvage whatever we can.  And then build upon what is salvaged and remains with us.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

These six, burn us alive

India's greatest contribution to the world and mathematics is said to be "Zero". That is one way of putting things; there have been many a contributions of India to the world, in diverse fields. But the concept of zero and decimal system are indeed very important contributions. One speciality of zero is that it is also used as a symbol in many languages. Just as a zero makes a very big difference in mathematics, it also makes a big difference in the languages in which it is used. The most common example often given for this are the words "Chita" and "Chinta". Chita (pyre) burns a dead body whereas Chinta (worries) burn a living person. Chita finishes its work by burning once and is done. Chinta keeps burning day after day and the process of burning the person continues until Chita finally takes over. The difference between Chita and Chinta is again that zero.

There are certain worries that make the very journey of life a big burden and unbearable. These stare at us each day of of the life; it is impossible to forget them. They have an uncanny ability to pop up at the most unwanted times and remind us of their existence. They cannot be solved easily and they appear perennial in their haunting capacities. One may be bestowed with bountiful pleasures, but these worries swallow the cumulative pleasant effect of all those pleasures.

The first of such worries is living in an unwanted place. Godforsaken place. Kugraamavaasa. Living in a place without basic amenities. No communication and conveniences. No like minded people or companions. No social life or facilities to pursue one's favorite pastime. These were the type of places to which an unwanted civil servant was being transferred when he earns the displeasure of his authorities. He continues in service but also continues to suffer each day of his living there. Burning the person alive on each day of stay there. The only relief is of dreaming of the day when one gets out of such place.

Second one is of serving a bad boss. Kujanasya seva. A boss who is an expert in finding faults, but does not believe in guiding or providing solutions. If something is done, he asks why it was done. If the same thing is not done, he asks why it was not done!  If something is done in one way, he asks why it was not done the other way. If it is done the other way, he questions why it was not done the earlier way. Burning alive each day of the life.

The third of such troubles is bad food.  Kubhojanam. The food is ready and kept before you. You are hungry too. But the quality of the food is pretty bad or it is an item you detest. If you try to eat it, it does not pass through the gullet. If you want to leave it and get up, hunger does not allow the option. Either way you suffer. If this repeats day after day, it is a never ending problem.

The fourth of such worries is a volatile spouse. Krodhamukhi patni (or pati). It is difficult to live without the spouse. It is even more difficult to live with such a spouse! One does not know when the volcano erupts. Or what ignites the volcano. Living under such fear for ever. Until divorce do us part. Of course, such a solution was not available in the past.

Fifth of such worries is living with children who are neither useful nor can be dismissed. Moorkhascha Putraha. All the duties of a parent are to be discharged in bringing up such children. But there is no use from them. Even if one assumes that bringing up them is a duty to be discharged without desire of returns, the duty never ends. They are a life long problem and a constant source of burning the parents alive. They can neither be got rid of.  Living with them is a problem personified. 

The sixth has undergone change with times. It was said to be a widowed daughter. Vidhava kanya. This was true a few decades earlier. But providing good education and skills to the girl child has reduced this problem a lot. Whatever be the case, staring at the life of a son or daughter without a spouse is considered a big problem of parents. Opinions differ, but some still believe this is a source of lifetime worry that burns alive.

The troubles of first have been tempered now due to better communication facilities. The third is moderated by availability of a multiple restaurants in some places. The fourth is solved to some extent by divorce laws. Fifth and sixth are probably less intense now. But the worry of serving a bad boss continues for some even today.

This subhashita summarises the above six beautifully:

कुग्रमवासः कुजनस्य सेवा कुभोजनं क्रोधमुखिच पत्नी 
मूर्खाश्च पुत्रः विधवा च कन्या दहन्ति चैतानि जनं विनाग्निम् 

Kugrama vasaha kujanasya seva kubhojanam krodhamukhicha patni
Moorkhascha putrah vidhavaacha kanya dahanti chaitani janam vinaagnim 

All these were very relevant when this was written. Today some have changed partially or fully depending on how one looks at them. Parts of them are true even today.