VR Logo

The art of questioning

To get useful answers, investors need to ask well-formulated questions about their investments. However, that's not as easy as its seems

The art of the question

At Value Research, my team and I have been answering investors' questions for more than a decade now. In print, on TV and online, we have probably answered more investing questions than anyone else in India. However, we have never had anyone ask the question that should be asked before any other, 'How should I ask a question about my investments?' The hard fact is that well-formulated questions are likely to get answers, and badly formulated ones often get ignored.

This was brought home to me when I participated in a web chat organised by a major business newspaper. It was essentially a Q&A session in which mutual fund investors asked me questions, and I answered them as best as I could. A web chat is a very different forum for asking and answering questions. The quick give and take is somewhat like the face-to-face interactions that I'm often a part of at investor events, but it's still quite different. I feel that on the web, because they are essentially anonymous and don't have to interact with each other, people ask questions much more frankly, being less apprehensive about appearing to be novices. That makes a web chat an interesting medium for observing the more spontaneous kind of questions.

Interestingly, a good number of questions seem to fit at one end of the knowledge scale or the other. There are questions that are simple to the point of being simplistic and do not contain enough information to be answered adequately. A typical (paraphrased) example would be this: 'I have ₹5 lakh. Where should I invest it?' or 'I am a retired person, X-years-old. Where should I invest?' or even 'What are some good funds for current market conditions?'

To put it bluntly, these are unanswerable questions. Or rather, questions of this kind cannot be answered in a way that is beneficial to the person who is asking them. Of course, if you go to someone who is selling funds, you are likely to get an answer that is tuned to making you invest in something that will be beneficial to the seller rather than to meeting your goals. But you really can't blame anyone else. There isn't enough information in the question itself for a useful and honest answer to be formulated.

So, how should you ask a question? Here are a few points that you should take care of when asking. Let's take the example of the person who asked 'I have ₹5 lakh. Where should I invest it?'. At the barest minimum, to answer this question, I would need to know the time frame for which he is investing. Changing the question to 'I have ₹5 lakh which I do not need for five years. Where should I invest it?' makes it a better question. While this is the minimum, there are other pieces of contextual information that will help you get a more detailed and useful answer. For instance, how old are you? Are you still earning? How large is this investment in the context of your total assets? Is there some particular event at an exact point of time for which you will need the money?

Of course, this is only one kind of question. There are many other which relate to taxation, retirement, specific funds, existing investments, insurance products and so on. In the near future, we hope to bring you a guide to asking questions about a wide range of topics. That's something that will help you as well as help us help you.