At a time when individuals in India are disenchanted with the stock market, Mumbai resident Ashalata Maheshwari, 77 years old, is a rare champion for stocks.
Ms. Maheshwari has been investing in Indian companies for five decades, and though many have gone bust over the years, shares in others have gained enough value to give her confidence that equities are the best investments over the long term.
“Stocks have given me the best returns because I have rarely sold them,” Ms. Maheshwari told The Wall Street Journal in an interview at her Mumbai home. “Patience is key to stock market investments,” she said.
The Reserve Bank of India says stocks comprise less than 5% of the savings of Indian households, which have traditionally invested in gold and real estate.
Many individuals turned to the stock market for the first time between 2007 and 2009 when India was booming and people had plenty of disposable income. But the financial downturn has hurt. India’s benchmark BSE S&P Sensex is off about 9% from record levels seen in early 2008.
Ms. Maheshwari is unfazed because stocks have risen over the long term. In the last 20 years, the BSE S&P Sensex has gained 11.4% on average annually. The gains are much higher if dividend income and bonus shares are taken into account. Over the same period, the value of gold has risen about 10% a year.
Ms. Maheshwari says her portfolio of 1,500 stocks is worth around 40 million rupees ($660,000). She says she owns most of the stocks for the dividends they pay, and plans to hold on to them for years.
Ms. Maheshwari says she is a hands-on investor who wades through companies’ financial statements. She has become a regular fixture at the annual general meetings of India’s largest firms, such as Reliance Industries Ltd. and Tata group companies, where she often asks for higher dividends and updates on planned projects.
To get her message across at these meetings, Ms. Maheshwari has occasionally burst into poem or song about a chief executive or directors. This has left a mark on many.
“[She] has been among those shareholders of Tata companies who, though individuals, are an institution,” Ratan Tata, the former chairman of the Tata group told The Wall Street Journal. “For as long as I can remember, she would be the most vocal lady shareholder-speaker in a bastion of men at AGMs. I believe she has inspired many women and youngsters to become engaged investors,” Mr. Tata said.
At Reliance Industry’s annual meeting in June, Ms. Maheshwari had a question for chief executive Mukesh Ambani, who earlier this year got Z-level security, the second-highest level of security in India.
Standing before an audience of around 1,000 Reliance shareholders and executives, Ms. Maheshwari said that if Mr. Ambani got “Z” security, shareholders should at least get “ABCD,” with A representing appreciation, B for bonus, C for cash, and D for dividends.
A Reliance spokesman said in June that Ms. Maheshwari’s and other investors’ demands were pending with the board. He didn’t respond to a recent call for comment. For last fiscal year, Reliance Industries paid a dividend of nine rupees a share.
Ms. Maheshwari says Reliance Industries is one of the best performing stocks in her portfolio, along with Tata Motors Ltd., software firm Tata Consultancy Ltd., engineering firm Larsen & Toubro Ltd. and toothpaste maker Colgate-Palmolive (India) Ltd. She says these stocks have risen by 10 times to 25 times since she bought them.
She says returns on stocks helped her to buy her home in Santacruz, a posh Mumbai neighborhood, for 80,000 rupees in 1972. “Today this house should be worth 50 million to 60 million rupees,” she said.
Ms. Maheshwari, a high school graduate, was introduced to stocks when her father-in-law gave her 1,000 shares of Grasim Industries Ltd., then a textile company, as a wedding gift in 1954.
“That time I didn’t even know what these pieces of paper meant,” she said, referring to the stock certificates.
Ms. Maheshwari says she realized their value after she started getting dividend checks regularly. “I decided to put more of my savings into stocks and made it a habit,” she said.
Over the years, her husband J.P. Maheshwari, who used to run a plastic products manufacturing business, started helping her.
Now, the two of them spend their days monitoring financial TV channels to get news on companies, stock markets and the economy, regularly trading on a pool of 100 to 200 stocks in Ms. Maheshwari’s portfolio.
She says she doesn’t always believe in analyst commentary and instead studies companies’ financial statements, annual reports, and dividend and bonus history before deciding on whether to invest in a stock or not.
“Balance sheets will always reveal the truth,” she said.
Ms. Maheshwari plans to be an active shareholder for many more years, and rues that there aren’t enough investors asking companies tough questions, especially at shareholder meetings.
“Investors should come prepared and throw valid questions to company managements… I don’t see that happening,” she said.