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How Rakesh Jhunjhunwala became India’s most successful investor

A new book on the late Rakesh Jhunjhunwala explains how patience and a long-term outlook on investments helped him build up a fortune

Rakesh Jhunjhunwala at his Mumbai office in 2014.
Rakesh Jhunjhunwala at his Mumbai office in 2014. (Kunal Patil/HT)

The stock market is a place to make quick bucks. Right or wrong, this is a common perception. No wonder most people come here with a mindset to get rich quickly. They enter the market to trade, not to invest. Here lies the catch.

Rakesh Jhunjhunwala didn’t earn his fortunes through trading alone. It did play an integral role in him collecting money in the initial days, but the real wealth he accrued by investing the trading profits in quality stocks for the long term. Learning the tricks of the ‘trade’ is not an easy job, but investing is. The first and foremost principle of investing is having patience and a long-term outlook. One cannot be a great investor if one always thinks about buying and selling different stocks.

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Jhunjhunwala was a visionary man since the early days, says a family friend who has known him since the late 1980s. ‘He did tell many of us to take positions in Titan and CRISIL, but only he had the vision to hold it for years. He could see its long-term potential and stood by it,’ he said. Rakesh began investing in Titan Industries in the late 1980s, far earlier than the popular narrative of him buying the stock in 2002. Time and compounding powered returns not just in Titan but also in the overall portfolio. Rakesh set foot in the stock market in 1986. He is fabled to have begun with 5000 in his pocket. His portfolio attained a value of approximately 35,000 crore in 2022, at the time of his death.

Some estimates put this value a lot higher. Debashis Basu put the worth of Rakesh’s portfolio at 50,000 crore in an article in Moneylife. According to Basu, with these two numbers, the compounded annual growth rate or CAGR for Rakesh works out to be either 62% or 65%—eyepopping numbers by any yardstick. In the long run, the return for the stock market as a whole is typically assumed to be just 12%. As per Basu, Rakesh’s returns make him the most successful investor in the history of investing, bar one—Jim Simmons of Renaissance Technologies, who notched up 66% CAGR between 1988 and 2018, and ahead of the likes of George Soros, Stanley Druckenmiller and Warren Buffett.

Ramesh Damani feels that this sort of record simply cannot be replicated. ‘I’ve known Rakesh from 1988 to August 14, 2022. He compounded his wealth at 54% over this period. In dollar terms, it is 47%. So my feeling is that there’s some records that stand the test of time. For example, Don Bradman’s batting average,’ Damani said.

To compare his portfolio’s performance with the Sensex, in 1986, the benchmark Sensex was at 561 points. At the time of Rakesh Jhunjhunwala’s death, it was 59,842. This is a growth of 106 times. If we were to work out the return rate for the Sensex, it would be 13.8% CAGR. This nowhere matches Rakesh’s CAGR, going from 5000 to 35,000 crore. Returns alone did not build Rakesh’s fortune. He took on highly risky leveraged bets (borrowing) early in his career and this allowed his personal return to vastly exceed that of the Sensex. However, this was not all smooth sailing. In an interview with Ramesh Damani in 2011, Rakesh said that his trading profits came in fits and starts—getting supercharged in bull markets such as 2002-07 and 2014 onwards. However, there were periods, such as 1993 to 1999, when he did not make much money from trading. He had an almost superhuman patience with such periods.

Published by Penguin Random House India
Published by Penguin Random House India

In an interview with Shekhar Gupta at The Print in 2021, he gave the example of his patience with shares in Hindustan Unilever (HUL). ‘In 2001, at the index of 2900, HUL was at 327. Hindustan Unilever did not exceed that price for eleven years. Index went from 2900 to 22,000. Lever exceeded that price only in 2012. For eleven years, you had no returns except dividends. That’s because in the preceding period, Lever had already run up,’ he said.

Patience is another virtue that one must learn from him. His patience was legendary, something he often emphasized in his public interactions, and this was focused on company fundamentals rather than stock prices. ‘As long as your company is gathering earnings, PE can come in three months. Earnings cannot come in three months. There was no growth in the corporate sector in the stock market between 1999 and 2003. Once the markets started moving up, you got the PEs in just six months. As long as earnings are coming, have patience. People want to sell the flowers and water the weeds. People want to sell their profitable investments and keep the loss makers. Every exit should be an independent decision,’ he told students at a lecture at FLAME University.

An unwarranted crash in a stock never bothered him. His Delhi-based stockbroker friend shares an interesting incident. When Britain voted to exit the European Union (popularly known as Brexit) in June 2016, it sent shockwaves across global markets. ‘Bhaiya expected otherwise. He didn’t think Brexit would happen. The verdict came out early in the morning. He told me that before he went to sleep, he instructed Rekha to not wake him. He must have made losses, but he reacted calmly and acted on it later in the day when the Brexit carnage on D-Street settled.’

Giving an example of a pharma company, a former employee, who didn’t wish to be named, shared an interesting story. ‘The pharma company was going through political turmoil, an issue unrelated to financial matters. The stock crashed, reacting to the news. Bhaiya had heavy stakes in it. He called us to ask about its fundamentals. We told him that numbers were strong. There was absolutely no financial risk to the company. He knew the stock had fallen more than it deserved. In a split second, he called his dealer and added more positions. After three to four days, a clarification was issued in connection with the political trouble in the company and the stock zoomed. Bhaiya made a lot of money and held on to its positions for the long term,’ the ex-employee said.

Rakesh may have earned his fortunes through direct stock investment, but he advised common investors to take the mutual fund route. In an interview at the Times Network India Economic Conclave 2021 held in March, Rakesh spoke about how investing through mutual funds is a mature option for those not into the stock market full-time. It was in the context of ‘Robin Hood’ investors making money in stocks such as Gamestop around February 2021. We had its Indian variants in different stocks, when a lot of people opened their demat accounts after the Covid-19 crash and the subsequent bull run in the stock market. ‘Don’t involve yourself in all this gambling where stocks go up by 40 and 50% every day. The mature attitude is to invest safely, give your money to experienced people to invest through mutual funds to fund managers and expect a reasonable return,’ he said.

Excerpted with permission from The Big Bull Of Dalal Street: How Rakesh Jhunjhunwala Made His Fortune by Neil Borate, Aprajita Sharma and Aditya Kondawar, published by Penguin Random House India

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