How to buy your first stock

Let’s say you recognize the corrosive nature of inflation, doff your hat to the marvel that is compounding and realize why equities are critical to wealth-building. Good going already. You’d now like to build your very own stock portfolio that you hope will grow your wealth manifold over the years. Fantastic! So, how do you find your first stock?

Where to look

Some investors go to The Wealth Builder for help looking for the right stock, others use platforms like Etoro, and some do it the old-fashioned way. As long as you’re making an informed decision, there’s not really a wrong way to go about it. If you’re looking to invest in something globally, it could be a good idea to read through ZIP ASX and other similar firms that have a good market capitalization. Another way is to flip through the pink papers or CNBC to see what stocks the talking heads are eagerly touting as the next big thing. It is also probably the worst way.

The other downside of buying your first stock based on a tip is that it doesn’t become your stock. It’s just something you clicked and bought.

For the Calm Investor, your first stock should:

  • be something you know and preferably use extensively
  • have a simple enough business model
  • not be bought as a potential “10-bagger” but as a learning tool

Buy what you know

Peter Lynch, probably, the 2nd most-famous investor in the world, said “Buy what you know”. The anecdote supporting this strategy was how his wife raved about L’eggs, the new line of pantyhose launched by Hanes, that was available at local supermarkets as opposed to only high-end department stores. Following further research and analysis, he bought Hanes for his portfolio which went on to give him great returns.

Since then, the strategy has been misconstrued and therefore criticized to such an extent that in the latest edition of his best-selling book ‘One up on wall street‘, he updated the introduction to say “Peter Lynch doesn’t advise you to buy stock in your favourite store just because you like shopping there”. He probably meant to suggest using “buy what you know” as a starting point to identify potential investments that could greatly help to improve your financial situation. For example, if you use Facebook, you will know how popular it has become over recent years. So much so that the shares of Facebook (Aktien von facebook) have also grown too, thus potentially giving you a higher ROI. Of course, there is nothing wrong with going down this route as, if you think about it, offers significant possibilities.

So, what do you know?

Typical weekday morning: Wake up – Check time on smartphone (Apple iphone / Galaxy S4 / Micromax Canvas) – brush teeth (Colgate / Closeup / Vicco) – Change into running gear (Nike / Reebok / Adidas): Run – have a cup of tea or coffee (Brooke Bond / Tata tea / Nescafe / Amul) – turn on the water-heater (Bajaj / Crompton Greaves) – shower (Cinthol / Fiami-di-Wills) – shave (Gillette) – dress for work (Jockey / Zodiac / Arrow / Raymond / Hush Puppies) – quick bite to eat (Quaker oats/ Kellogg’s / Britannia) with a glass of fruit juice (Tropicana / Real) – ride/ drive to work (Hero / Bajaj / Maruti Suzuki / Hyundai)…

Turns out, you already know a lot. Keep track for a few days and some products will strike you as being nearly irreplaceable in your daily life.

Look out for products-brands that:

  • evoke an age-old emotional connect
  • you have a hard time even thinking of competitors
  • you wouldn’t consider replacing because they’re the best at what they do

Each of those should make it to your “first-stock potentials” list. Identify the parent companies of the brands you identify. Filter out those that aren’t easily accessible to Indian investors; international companies not listed in India (Apple, Samsung), private companies (Micromax). Looking at the role real products and companies play in your life will make this exercise fun.

ColgateColgate Palmolive
Brooke Bond Red LabelHindustan Unilever
CintholGodrej Consumer Products
GilletteGillette India
JockeyPage Industries
Hush PuppiesBata India
Nutrichoice BiscuitsBritannia
AirtelBharti Airtel
PulsarBajaj Auto
Swift Maruti Suzuki

It’s apparent that this approach leaves out broad sets of companies not involved in consumer-facing industries. But that’s ok since this exercise is to pick your first stock and not an entire portfolio.

Five traits of your first stock

Now that you have your short-list of potential stocks, you need to dive deeper to identify the stock most fitting to be your prized first buy. There are hundreds of possible things to look at in a company, but the idea of this site and this article in particular is to identify those key aspects that allow you to be reasonable confident in the strength of a company.
The Calm Investor

1. Size & Longevity

Size because the largest firms by market capitalization have the most eyes on them, tend to be among the leaders in their industry and longevity because you want to be sure the company has been in its chosen business for long enough to be able to run it with its eyes closed.

CompanyFeb 2015 Market Cap (INR Crores)Years in Operation
Colgate Palmolive25,15877
Hindustan Unilever203,00059
Godrej Consumer Products36,65114
Gillette India10,95630
Page Industries13,39920
Bata India9,06342
Bharti Airtel155,00019
Bajaj Auto66,61469
Maruti Suzuki108,00032

They’ve all been around for a decent length of time, with Godrej and Bharti Airtel being the babies of the group at under two decades so that shouldn’t rule anyone out. However, there’s a big range in market capitalization between HUL and Colgate.

Let’s draw a line at â‚ ¹10,000 Crores (~$1.7Bn) which eliminates Bata India.

2. Extent of borrowing

The debt-holder gets his share of the companies profits – a pre-determined amount, before the share-holder does. In a year where the business doesn’t do well due to any reasons, the shareholders get proportionately less, but the lenders are due the same amount. So, a company that isn’t able to pay lenders can go bankrupt, even if the decline is temporary. This makes any company that borrows a lot of money (relative to what it makes in an average year) a risky equity investment.

Corollary: A company that doesn’t need to borrow is better at funding it’s own growth from what it makes, thus indicating its probably better at running a business than one that needs to borrow a lot.

CompanyLong-Term DebtDebt / EquityInterest Cover
Colgate PalmoliveNo Debt0NA
Hindustan UnileverNo Debt0NA
Godrej Consumer Products0.88~0NA
Gillette IndiaNo Debt0NA
Page Industries1420.4923.6
Bharti Airtel8,5230.137.4
Bajaj Auto57.70.019,454
Maruti Suzuki1,6850.0821.8

None on our list is a “big” borrower. Page Industries with a Debt-Equity ratio of 0.49 (including short-term debt) could raise an eyebrow. But, it has a healthy interest cover, which means for every â‚ ¹1 it needs to pay it’s lenders, Page Inds makes â‚ ¹23.6 in earnings before interest and taxes. The other company that’s a question mark is Bharti Airtel because of it’s interest cover of just 7x and a sizable debt burden. Let’s remove Airtel but leave Page in for now.

3. Profitability & Growth

An ability to run a business profitably and to grow those profits over time is essential for a company to be a good stock investment. Therefore, we prefer businesses that are consistently profitable and also show some growth over time.

Company# profitable years in last 5Annual Earnings Growth
Colgate Palmolive56.2%
Hindustan Unilever515.4%
Godrej Consumer Products519.8%
Gillette India5-21.7%
Page Industries540.4%
Bajaj Auto517.5%
Maruti Suzuki52.7%

Some credit is due to our initial method of identifying strong brands that they’ve all been consistently profitable. However, earnings growth (adjusted for stock splits) suggests some underperformers. Gillette India, Colgate and Maruti Suzuki lose out and can be eliminated here.

4. Quality of earnings

Which is better: A company that uses â‚ ¹1,000 of capital to generate â‚ ¹10 in earnings or one that uses â‚ ¹100 to do the same? The second company is able to make more productive use of its capital and is therefore a better investment.

Note that this metric tends to vary across sectors depending on their capital intensity. Can the company generate earnings at a rate much better than a regular bank FD could (In the above example, putting â‚ ¹1,000 in the bank would get you â‚ ¹90 in pre-tax interest at 9%, obviously better than the â‚ ¹10 the fictional company managed)

Company5 yr ROICLast FY ROIC
Hindustan Unilever99.6%124.8%
Godrej Consumer Products21.9%13.8%
Page Industries36%41.9%
Bajaj Auto50.5%36.9%

A wide dispersion in how effectively companies utilize their invested capital. We can now remove Godrej Consumer products because of the relatively low RoIC and the decline in the latest financial year. Britannia has the 2nd lowest 5 year average but with a sharp increase while Bajaj Auto has a healthy average but a decline. Let’s also remove Britannia for now from our consideration set.

5. Management quality and other qualitative stuff

We started with 10 companies and whittled them down to three; Hindustan Unilever, Page Industries and Bajaj Auto, all in different businesses. Now comes the hard or the fun part depending on your bent of mind.

One makes branded packaged foods, one is the exclusive licensee of a known underwear brand and one makes two-wheelers. Assuming you do not have a clear preference on which sector will do better, your decision will need to take into account which management you have most faith in.

There are several ways you could approach it, but no clear-cut metric will help here. Why not? After all, the three key ratings agencies in India have something called a corporate governance rating (CRISIL, CARE, ICRA). Because, on 22nd Sep, 2008, a global corporate governance ratings agency awarded the ‘Global Peacock Award for Excellence in Corporate Governance’ to this company, and on 7th Jan, 2009, the founder wrote a letter to its board of directors admitting to accounting fraud.

Some things to think about when considering the management of your shortlist:

  1. Is the promoter (founder) still involved? Has (s)he maintained or reduced ownership stake?
  2. Their tenure and track-record, have there been many changes at the CXO level?
  3. Do they talk up the company and make lots of optimistic statements or do they try to temper expectations? (Consider this, a research paper in the US found an average +1.6% jump in stock price when CEOs appeared on CNBC. This gain then receded over the next 10 days)
  4. Any radical departures in strategy, like going on an acquisition spree, buying back stock at historic highs, investing in an unrelated business…the list goes on

Now its time to make your decision and buy your first stock. Notice how there is no mention of price until now. That is deliberate. While price is a critical element of the stock-buying process, its secondary to buying quality companies, especially as you begin.

Next steps

The objective of buying your first stock should be more to learn about your reactions to the vagaries of Mr. Market as the price of your stock fluctuates soon after you buy. That urge to check on the price every 5 seconds, the elation when the price ticks up by 1.1% and the rising dread when you see it go the other way. All are stimuli that tell you about your temperament as an investor. Over time, as the stock either gains or loses, you learn to revisit your assumptions about the company and refine your method.

And above all, stay calm and enjoy the process.

Disclosure: Of the stocks mentioned, Colgate is currently part of my portfolio

Additional reading:

‘Buy what you know’ is a seriously flawed investment strategy – Business Insider

Buy your first stock – Motley Fool

22 thoughts on “How to buy your first stock

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  • March 31, 2015 at 6:05 am

    This is a very useful article for a beginner like me!!! I bought my first stock without analyzing and purely on impulse and I am yet to buy my first business!! maybe this post of yours will help me in doing so!! Thank you!!

  • March 31, 2015 at 7:02 am

    Thanks Kanagu! The intent of the post was exactly that, to provide a process that is not too intimidating and potentially even fun.
    Best of luck!

  • April 3, 2015 at 5:03 pm

    I am curious to known which website you refer to get company earning details,ROIC, Growth etc? I personal y refer to,

  • April 4, 2015 at 7:49 am

    I use moneycontrol for basic financial statement data and prefer to calculate the key metrics when analyzing stocks. For quick comparisons I use ratios. Haven’t used yet but does look useful.

  • August 27, 2015 at 7:34 pm

    Hi ,

    I simply loved the article. Thank you very much.


  • August 29, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    Thanks Abhishek. Appreciate your feedback!

  • July 3, 2016 at 1:40 pm

    Thanks Praveen!

  • July 12, 2016 at 9:26 pm

    Very wonderful article which explaining in detail about stock. But i feel thee should be more information in details about stock investment just life site in a different sections.

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  • June 18, 2017 at 5:04 pm

    Your english is pathetic to read, why make it more complex to read by using complex words. Keep it simple

  • June 18, 2017 at 5:16 pm

    Thanks Mukul. There goes my shot at a Pulitzer Prize. Also, will refund your money. Oh wait…

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  • July 26, 2017 at 9:45 am

    Hi ,
    Thanks for the wonderful post.

    What is the formula to calculate return on invested capital?
    would appreciate real time example in indian companies.

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  • May 17, 2018 at 9:09 am

    You may still get your Pulitzer. Keep working at it. Very useful article.

  • May 17, 2018 at 10:02 am

    Haha…I’ll ignore the sarcasm and take the compliment 🙂

  • April 10, 2019 at 3:51 pm

    Love your blogs, love your writing! If only there was a Pulitzer for financial writing… You make it so simple and so much fun!

  • April 10, 2019 at 4:00 pm

    Thanks for the generous compliment Vijay!

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