Phi Beta Football Foibles

KAZOn November 24, 1951, Princeton defeated Dartmouth, 13-0, to win its 22nd straight football game and complete a second consecutive undefeated season for what was described, by the great writer John McPhee, as “Phi Beta Football.” In those days, Princeton still used a then-old, direct snap, pure power offense called the single wing even though most college teams were “mating the quarterback to the center of the line in the formation called ‘T.’” It was also the final game for Princeton tailback and legend Dick Kazmaier, the “Maumee Menace,” a future College Football Hall of Fame inductee and McPhee’s roommate. “Kaz” had been pictured on the cover of Time magazine that week (right) and would soon win the Heisman Trophy (the last Ivy League player to do so) in a landslide. But the game that day is not primarily remembered as having capped off an outstanding season and a brilliant career.

Instead, the legacy of that brisk late autumn afternoon contest rests upon two seemingly unrelated matters: allegations of intentionally dirty play by Dartmouth and our inability to perceive reality with any degree of objective accuracy, especially where we have a major emotional investment. Based upon various sources, the primary narrative from the game is that Dartmouth set out to injure Princeton players – particularly Kazmaier – and that after the Princeton star was injured and forced from the game in the second quarter, matters turned increasingly fractious. But that wasn’t the only proffered narrative. Continue reading


with-stupidNoah Smith (@Noahpinion on Twitter) made an interesting assertion yesterday about the purpose of argument. Smith began by noting Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff’s op-ed in Forbes in which he acts as a concern troll toward New York Times columnist (and noted economist himself) Paul Krugman because Krugman allegedly called Congressman Paul Ryan stupid. To be clear, Krugman’s primary point was not that Ryan is stupid, but that he is crooked, especially as it pertains to his budget proposals. Smith uses this context for looking at arguments in general, and he makes an excellent point.

[A]s a society, we use arguments the wrong way. We tend to treat arguments like debate competitions — two people argue in front of a crowd, and whoever wins gets the love and adoration of the crowd, and whoever loses goes home defeated and shamed. I guess that’s better than seeing arguments as threats of physical violence, but I still prefer the idea of arguing as a way to learn, to bounce ideas off of other people. Proving you’re smart is a pointless endeavor (unless you’re looking for a job), and is an example of what Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset.” As the band Sparks once sang, “Everybody’s stupid — that’s for sure” [even though nobody wants to be called stupid]. What matters is going in the right direction — becoming less stupid, little by little.

But I think Smith’s ideal isn’t all that practical. To begin with, as Megan McArdle emphasizes, by calling one who disagrees with you stupid (even implicitly) “you have guaranteed that no one who disagrees with you will hear a word that you are saying.” Thus “calling people stupid is simply a performance for the fellow travelers in your audience” as well as a means of asserting superiority.

My sense is that the key element to this discussion is that most partisans see “their side” as not just true, but obviously true. It’s a by-product of bias blindness, or selective perception.  We tend to see bias in others but not in ourselves. Therefore, our strongly held positions aren’t really debatable — they’re objectively and obviously true. After all, if we didn’t think our positions were true, we wouldn’t hold them. And (our thinking goes) since they are objectively true, anyone who makes the effort to try should be able to ascertain that truth. Our opponents are thus without excuse.  Continue reading

A Commitment to Truth

InvestmentBeliefssm2 (2)It seems to me, after a good deal of thought, reflection and research, that we have so much difficulty dealing with behavioral and cognitive bias in large measure because we build our belief structures precisely backwards. There’s nothing revelatory in that conclusion, obviously, because it is exactly what confirmation bias is all about. We like to think that we make (at least relatively) objective decisions based upon the best available evidence. But the truth is that we are ideological through-and-through and thus tend to make our “decisions” first — based upon our pre-conceived notions — and then backfill to add some supportive reasoning (which need not be very good to be seen as convincing).

I have been working on an infographic to try to illustrate the issue* and have come up with the following.

Commitment Hierarchy

The goal should be to build from the ground up — beginning with facts, working to conclusions and so on. Beliefs are interpretations of one’s conclusions about the facts. If more fervently held, they rise to the level of conviction and perhaps to the highest pyramid level, whereby one makes a major commitment to a particular cause, approach or ideology. These commitments are the things by which we tend to be defined.  Continue reading

Five Good Questions with Terry Odean

5 Good QuestionsTerrance Odean is the Rudd Family Foundation Professor of Finance at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a member of the Journal of Investment Consulting editorial advisory board, of the Russell Sage Behavioral Economics Roundtable, and of the WU Gutmann Center Academic Advisory Board at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. He has been an editor and an associate editor of the Review of Financial Studies, an associate editor of the Journal of Finance, a co-editor of a special issue of Management Science, an associate editor at the Journal of Behavioral Finance, a director of UC Berkeley’s Experimental Social Science Laboratory, a visiting professor at the University of Stavanger, Norway, and the Willis H. Booth Professor of Finance and Banking and Chair of the Finance Group at the Haas School of Business. As an undergraduate at Berkeley, Odean studied Judgment and Decision Making with the 2002 Nobel Laureate in Economics, Daniel Kahneman. This led to his current research focus on how psychologically motivated decisions affect investor welfare and securities prices.

Today I ask (in bold) and Terry answers what I hope are Five Good Questions as part of my longstanding series by that name (see links below). Continue reading

That’s right, the women are smarter

Regular readers will recall that I began my Wall Street career on the ginormous fixed income trading floor of what was then Merrill Lynch in downtown Manhattan. Of the hundreds of people who called the seventh floor of the World Financial Center home during the workday then, astonishingly few were women and even fewer were traders – those who committed hundreds of millions of dollars of Merrill’s capital every single day. Even so, and despite rampant and often aggressive sexism, the women were always amongst the very best of the breed – smart, shrewd, savvy and discerning.

Part of that was to be expected. In such a male dominated, testosterone fueled world, only the very best women would be allowed access to that boy’s club in the first place. And only the very best of them would be allowed to stay. Still, the women traders I knew seemed more calculating and less prone to foolish errors than many of their male counterparts. They were also quicker to recognize and fix the errors they did make. And the research data backs up my anecdotal experience.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to my point. Last week I participated in an excellent conference entitled Diversifying Income and Innovations in Asset Allocation put on by S&P Dow Jones Indices in Beverly Hills. I spoke about retirement income strategies. Among the other presenters was Deborah Frame of Cougar Global Investments in Toronto. Her presentation focused on asset allocation and it was very enlightening.

During the cocktail hour, she and I were discussing the research literature that looks at the differences in men and women when it comes to investing. She took exception to my having characterized one of those differences, consistent with the literature, as women being more “risk averse” than men. She made the point that women are more “risk aware” – more cognizant of the risks they face and smarter about dealing with them (in general, of course). In her view, that’s why, for example, women so routinely asked for directions (in the days when phones didn’t come with GPS) when they weren’t sure where they were, and men so routinely refused to do so.

And, by golly, she was right. Since women generally are better investors, they should be portrayed positively (more “risk aware”) rather than negatively (more “risk averse”). Moreover, since men (again, in general) are more risk seeking and more likely to make foolish investment decisions, they should not be the standard to which women are compared. It should be the other way around. It was sexist of me to look at things otherwise.

Thanks, Deborah. Lesson learned (I hope).

We Are Less Than Rational

Investment Belief #3: We aren’t nearly as rational as we assume

InvestmentBeliefssm2 (2)Traditional economic theory insists that we humans are rational actors making rational decisions amidst uncertainty in order to maximize our marginal utility. Sometimes we even try to believe it.  But we aren’t nearly as rational as we tend to assume. We frequently delude ourselves and are readily manipulated – a fact that the advertising industry is eager to exploit.1

Watch Mad Men‘s Don Draper (Jon Hamm) use the emotional power of words to sell a couple of Kodak executives on himself and his firm while turning what they perceive to be a technological achievement (the “wheel”) into something much richer and more compelling – the “carousel.”

Those Kodak guys will hire Draper, of course, but their decision-making will hardly be rational. Homo economicus is thus a myth. But, of course, we already knew that. Even young and inexperienced investors can recognize that after just a brief exposure to the real world markets. The “rational man” is as non-existent as the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot and (perhaps) moderate Republicans.  Yet the idea that we’re essentially rational creatures is a very seductive myth, especially as and when we relate the concept to ourselves (few lose money preying on another’s ego). We love to think that we’re rational actors carefully examining and weighing the available evidence in order to reach the best possible conclusions.

Oh that it were so. If we aren’t really careful, we will remain deluded that we see things as they really are. The truth is that we see things the way we really are. I frequently note that investing successfully is very difficult. And so it is. But the reasons why that is so go well beyond the technical aspects of investing. Sometimes it is retaining honesty, lucidity and simplicity – seeing what is really there – that is what’s so hard. Continue reading

The Wyatt Earp Effect

The Big PictureMy first post for The Big Picture, the wonderful blog from Barry Ritholtz, also of The Washington Post and Bloomberg View, is now up. You may read it here. I hope you will.

The Wyatt Earp Effect

Mean Reversion Wins Again

HogeRight after his terrific Super Bowl winning performance, Joe Flacco was deemed the best quarterback in the NFL by ESPN “expert” Merril Hoge.

During presentations on cognitive biases and their impact on investment decision-making throughout this year, I have been using this claim as a great example of recency bias and of a likely failure to understand mean reversion. Flacco’s performance so far this season makes the point.

Flacco was fantastic in the play-offs last season, leading the Baltimore Ravens to a title by throwing 11 touchdowns with no interceptions over that time and averaging a terrific 9.05 yards per attempt. His QBR was 84.4 and his QB Rating was 117.2.  However, in the 80 regular-season games before that, and through the 2013 season to this point, Flacco has been and remains an average NFL quarterback {115 TDs to 74 interceptions (13/13 this year); 7.01 yards per attempt (6.55 this year); 51.7 QBR; 84.9 QB Rating (48.3/75.3 this year)}. Despite the four play-off games that suggested he might be an emerging superstar, I argued, beginning last winter, that his performance would likely revert to his mean, long-term performance. And so it did.

It is possible that near-term aberrations in performance reflect a major change in long-term norms that can be continued going forward. But that’s not usually the case. As Dennis Green (then coach of the Arizona Cardinals) famously expressed it, “They are who we thought they were” most of the time and that doesn’t tend to change all that much.

The market corollary to this idea is that when prices are very high they will tend to decline and when they are very low they will tend to rise. Since our objective generally is to buy low and sell high, making good investment decisions in this regard should be pretty easy then, right? Sadly, the answer is a clear no.

Recency bias is our tendency to put too much emphasis upon the recent past to the exclusion of the full data set and to extrapolate recent events into the future indefinitely. Professionals are no less prone to its effects as anyone else. As reported by Bespoke, Bloomberg surveys market strategists on a weekly basis and asks for their recommended portfolio weightings of stocks, bonds and cash.  The peak recommended stock weighting came just after the peak of the internet bubble in early 2001 while the lowest recommeded weighting came just after the lows of the financial crisis. Obviously, following that advice would have been a big mistake and had an investor sold stocks at the peak stock weighting and bought at the rock-bottom weighting – doing the opposite of what the experts said – s/he would have done exceptionally well.

Emotionally, we get afraid when markets tank and euphoric (greedy) when markets are hot. No matter how quick we are to agree with Warren Buffet conceptually (“Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful”), it’s really hard to do. The financial markets are the only places I know where people want to pay top dollar and resist buying anything on sale. Where else do people want to wait for prices to go up before they buy? That’s largely on account of recency bias and our emotions. Ravens fans were angry when mean reversion was discussed in connection with Joe Flacco’s play-off performance last season. But the numbers don’t lie. He’s still who we thought he was.

The Myth of the Rational Investor

rcm_logo_followMy latest Real Clear Markets piece is available here. A taste follows.

Homo economicus is a myth, of course. But it’s a very seductive myth, especially as and when we relate the concept to ourselves. We like to think that we’re rational actors carefully examining and weighing the evidence in order to reach the best possible conclusions. Oh that it were so.

Here’s the money quote: “Information may be cheap, but meaning is expensive and elusive.”

Better Investing Requires A Broad Perspective