I Hope This Doesn’t Describe You

The new issue of Research magazine is now available online. Its theme is evidence-based investing. I encourage you to read it in its entirety. My contribution is here and outlines some alternatives to evidence-based investing. A taste follows.

The providence-based advisor

An advisor who lacks convincing evidence will often claim that the advice he is giving comes straight from God. Sometimes the claim is implicit, sometimes explicit.

Sometimes the motivator is guilt, sometimes it alleged brotherhood. But the results are usually hellish.

I Hope This Doesn’t Describe You

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There is a new and growing movement in our industry toward so-called evidence-based investing, which has much in common with evidence-based medicine. Given that it’s a relatively new concept — even though the best advisors have always practiced it — it might be helpful to look carefully at some possible alternatives to being an evidence-based advisor.

Here is a baker’s dozen worth of options for your thoughtful consideration. Many were adapted liberally from a piece on evidence-based medicine written by Dr. David Isaacs and Dr. Dominic Fitzgerald for the “British Medical Journal” in 1999. If I’ve missed any category, please let me know.

The eminence-based advisor

This (usually older) advisor wants you to believe that the more senior the practitioner, the less importance needs to be placed on anything so trivial as mere evidence. Apparent experience, it seems, is worth more than any amount of evidence.

These advisors have a touching faith in personal experience, which can be defined as “making the same mistakes with increasing confidence over an impressive number of years.” Such an advisor’s white hair and balding pate are often called the “halo” effect and act to trump substantive knowledge.

His (rarely her) well-appointed suite of offices featuring fine views and paneled wood are usually seen as the best available evidence of quality.

The fear-based advisor

This sort of advisor keeps on shouting from the rooftops that “the end is nigh,” over and over and over again, no matter what actually happens, in order to get you to respond. The idea is that if clients and prospects are sufficiently scared, they will run to the fear-monger for refuge. In other words, quite simply, fear sells.

The crooked advisor

This category of advisor is both self-explanatory and far bigger than generally assumed. For these advisors, prospects and clients are merely opportunities to be exploited by the best available means. They actually do care about evidence, but it’s a very different sort of monetary evidence (cha-ching).

The vehemence-based advisor

This sort of advisor sets out to substitute volume and passion of transmission for actual evidence so as to pummel, cajole and harass prospects, clients and adversaries into believing that he (rarely she) is really good.

The eloquence-based advisor

Proponents of this approach are always smoooooth. They feature year-round tans (even in New York), power ties, fine suits from Barneys, and (especially) a silken tongue. Sartorial elegance and verbal eloquence are deemed powerful substitutes for mere evidence.

The novelty-based advisor

This specimen emphasizes what’s new and unique, the less transparent the better. They always have the latest and the greatest.

Black boxes and hedge funds are prominent in this space — because he (again, rarely she, as is true in most other advisor categories) is so smart, don’t cha know?

The providence-based advisor

An advisor who lacks convincing evidence will often claim that the advice he is giving comes straight from God. Sometimes the claim is implicit, sometimes explicit.

Sometimes the motivator is guilt, sometimes it alleged brotherhood. But the results are usually hellish.

The intuitive advisor

Alleged common sense is often more attractive than real evidence, especially because good investing is often counter-intuitive. Therefore, this sort of advisor will go with his gut about stocks, funds, managers, styles, timing and forecasts.

He will rarely just stand there. He’ll usually be doing something.

The diffidence-based advisor

Some advisors see a problem and look for an answer. Others merely see a problem. The diffident advisor will often do little or even nothing out of a sense of paralysis or despair.

He will do nothing, because he has no good evidence-based idea what to do. This, of course, is most often better than doing a non-evidenced series of somethings. But that’s a really low bar.

The self-righteous advisor

This advisor hoses his clients while remaining utterly convinced that they are doing what’s best for them. He’s often wrong but never in doubt.

No one should be surprised that, in this instance (as well as others), “what’s best” is often really, really good for the advisor. It doesn’t usually work out so well for the clients.

The nervous advisor

Fear of clients being upset and the potential consequences thereof are powerful stimuli for excessive and repeated portfolio changes. Counterintuitively, this sort of advisor is often quite afraid of offering reasonable expectations, because unreasonable expectations are so much more attractive. Plus, they can be counted on to tell clients and prospects what they want to hear rather than what they need to know.

The ideology-based advisor

This sort of advisor is unalterably committed to his market ideology, contrary facts and evidence notwithstanding. They know what’s True (with a capital T) and will stick with that come hell or high water (and beyond).

The publicity based advisor

This category sets out to convince clients of his bona fides via media appearances, publicity shots and name recognition rather than real client service. That’s because he had to become so well known for a reason, right?

As British journalist Robin Powell puts it, “All too often we base our investment decisions on industry marketing and advertising or on what we read and hear in the media” or on something else altogether.

Evidence-based investing is the idea that no investment advice should be given unless and until it is adequately supported by good evidence. Thus, evidence-based financial advice involves life-long, self-directed learning and faithfully caring for client needs.

It requires good information and solutions that are well supported by good (often academic) research, as well as the demonstrated ability of the proffered solutions to work in the real world over the long haul (which is why I would prefer to describe this approach as science-based investing). It means changing one’s mind, approach and strategy when the evidence demands it.

The obvious response to the question about whether one’s financial advice ought to be evidence-based is, “Duh!” Then again, advisors and investors of every sort — those with a good process, a bad process, a questionable process, an iffy process, an ad hoc process, a debatable process, a speculative process, a delusional process, or no process at all — all think that they are evidence-based practitioners already.

They may not describe it that way specifically. But they all tend to think that their process is a good one based upon good reasons. Nothing to see here. Move right along.

But the bald fact remains that all too few in the financial world practice evidence-based investing. Take a good look at the alternatives and carefully consider how evidence-based your advice and your practice really are. Test and re-test your purported evidence for errors, holes and unsupported conclusions.

Investing successfully is really hard. Adding a client component makes it harder still. Even the best advisors are going to be wrong far more often than they would like.

If you want to do right by your clients, keep checking and re-checking your work, your assumptions and your conclusions. The evidence demands no less.

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Underestimating the Density of the Fog

The story has essentially attained the level of holy writ, at least to those committed to data and evidence, such that it now seems almost too good to be true. The quick-and-dirty version of the tale is that stats geeks with computers, like those former player and broadcaster Tim McCarver called “drooling eggheads,” outsmarted and outmaneuvered the stupid yet arrogant “traditional baseball men” who ran our most traditional sport at the professional level and who thought they knew all there was to know about the game. Thus, it is said, everything the old-time baseball men thought they knew about evaluating players and teams has been found wanting, not that those whose day has passed, committed to wizardry and witchcraft as they are, have recognized it.

This revolution – as shocking as it has been comprehensive – is said to have brought about the ultimate revenge of the nerds. The geeks now run the baseball show, having moved the level of analytical precision involved in running teams and evaluating players from zero-to-sixty in a flash. The new breed of “baseball men” aren’t grizzled scouts looking for “five tool guys” but, rather, Ivy League educated experts in computer modelling and statistical analysis who use those skills to determine who to scout, who to sign, who to play and how to play. The prevailing narrative describes this new contingent as dominating professional baseball at every level, down to the depths of the independent minor leagues.

Is the analytics overhaul of baseball proper as complete and comprehensive as the telling claims? No. The real story is much more interesting and enlightening than that.

Baseball is particularly amenable to the use of statistical analysis because it offers large sample sizes, discrete individual-performance measures (such as plate appearances, pitches, and the like), and ease of identifying positive results (such as winning, home runs, and the like). However, when humans are involved – and baseball is as human as can be – interpretation of the underlying data is highly complicated.

Great interpretation of difficult data sets, especially those involving human behavior, involves more sculpting than tracing. It requires great skill, imagination and even a bit of whimsy as well as collaboration as to whether the various interpretive choices are acceptable (not to say the right) ones. That’s why we understand reality better with respect to the natural sciences than in the social sciences. As ever, information is cheap but meaning is expensive.

To lead off, let’s recall that if it seems too good to be true, it usually is. To see what I mean by that in the context of our story will require some in-depth analysis of its own, starting with more than a bit of background information and history.  Continue reading