A Hierarchy of Advisor Value

I talk often with lots of advisors of all sorts and from a wide variety of firms. They are profoundly disillusioned an astonishingly high amount of the time. When the markets are strong, they are disappointed that they didn’t capture enough of the upside. When the markets are weak, they are apoplectic that they didn’t avoid the downturn. When markets are sideways, they’re just plain frustrated. When they try to anticipate these movements they usually fail and when they don’t – a very rare event indeed – their next moves inevitably don’t keep up the good work. They hate seeming to start from scratch every day and living from transaction to transaction, dependent upon the machinations of markets for survival.

This profound disillusionment is well-earned, of course, and is predicated upon three primary problem areas: execution; expectation; and erroneous priorities. The basis for each of these problems can be established in surprisingly short order.

In terms of execution, the trade ideas they offer rarely turn out well and the performance provided by money managers, when they go that route, almost never meet expectations such that it’s not unfair to say that much of the money management business has been an abject failure pretty much across-the-board, even for the mega-rich. Poor investor behavior makes that dreadful performance even worse — we trade too often, at the wrong times and into the wrong instruments. We chase returns via managers, sectors and trades that have been hot only to be disappointed when mean reversion inevitably sets in. Our inflated expectations make matters worse still because investors expect outperformance as a matter of course and investment managers tell them to expect it, implicitly and explicitly. That’s what makes the sale after all.

Erroneous priorities include a failure to manage to personal needs, goals and risk tolerances as well as “plans” that change with every market movement. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that clients with huge appetites and tolerance for risk when markets are rallying frequently want to go to cash at the first sign of trouble. At the advisor level, the priority problem is even more fundamental and encompasses each of these problem areas. Much of what tries to pass as “financial advice” is actually glorified (or even not-so-glorified) stock-picking. In my experience, most advisors and their clients wrongly think that the advisor’s primary function is to pick good investment vehicles.

Advisors are well aware of the failures of the money management business, of course, as well as the limitations of a transactional business model. That’s a big reason why their disillusionment is so existential. They have been let down again and again by the idea that they have (finally!) come up with a formula for success only for reality to crush those promises. Even worse, and consistent with that conundrum, a 2012 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that financial advisors reinforce behavioral biases and misconceptions – the problems outlined above – in ways that serve the advisors’ interests rather than those of their clients.

Still, many of these advisors keep hoping against hope. They routinely tell me that if they proposed a data-driven, evidence-based approach with their clients that actually had a reasonable chance for success, their clients wouldn’t perceive a need their services. Not so coincidentally, that’s a big reason why so many advisors are terrified by the proposed Department of Labor fiduciary rule with respect to retirement accounts. And that’s why the Dilbert cartoon reproduced below about index funds (one possible data-driven approach but hardly the only one) is so wickedly funny.

Hierarchy 1

Proper advisor priorities begin with a recognition of what is important and what is achievable. That’s why I have created this hierarchy of advisor value, which was developed for a presentation I have been giving to groups of advisors. Hierarchy of Advisor Value (wide)(ATM)

Managing to this hierarchy won’t make the markets any less infuriating, but doing so will make the financial advice business much more fulfilling and gratifying. It can even make that business more lucrative, at least over the longer-term. Simply put, it will require carefully and truly putting the client’s interests first, even when the client doesn’t see it that way.  Continue reading

In Times Like These

“My Mama told me there’d be days like this.” – Van Morrison

Stock markets are in turmoil all over the globe. Monday was especially violent and what passes for financial television was awash in bluster, doom and gloom. Markets were gapping down in China, in London, in Japan and elsewhere. Emerging markets were getting crushed. Here in the States, the S&P 500 dropped about 4 percent, with the other major benchmarks performing similarly. The next day, on what appeared to be “Turnaround Tuesday,” a day-long rally was overcome by a major sell-off just before the close, pushing all the major indexes underwater for yet another day. Today has opened well, but (obviously) we don’t know what’s coming.

Over the previous six trading days, the benchmark S&P index has lost well over 200 points, or roughly 11 percent, putting it on track for its worst August in 17 years. But since the markets haven’t seen a significant correction (a loss of at least 10 percent) since 2011, we have been due for one. When financial markets are free-falling, and all correlations seem to converge on 1.0, analytically we move into the realm of the physics of landslides, where things are inherently complicated and unpredictable (which is not to say that more “normal” times are somehow simple and predictable). Continue reading

Everybody Plays the Fool (Sometimes)

Back when I was in high school, an R&B group called The Main Ingredient, fronted by Cuba Gooding, Sr., scored a big hit with Everybody Plays the Fool.

Everybody plays the fool (sometimes)
There’s no exception to the rule (listen, baby)
It may be factual, it may be cruel (I ain’t lyin’)
Everybody plays the fool

So, so true.

top10Everybody does play the fool at least sometimes, about love and money. So, in honor of April Fools’ Day, here is a helpful list of ways nearly all of us play the fool about money (sometimes). Remember, there’s no exception to the rule (listen, baby). Continue reading

Signing Day and the Investment Process

davidYesterday – the first Wednesday in February and thus the so-called National Signing Day – was the first day that high school seniors could sign letters of intent to accept an athletic scholarship to play Division I college football in the fall. It’s the culmination of a long recruiting process and crucial to the success of teams and coaches. It can get more than a bit ridiculous.

Some players announced their intentions using live animal props, or worse. One recruit picked Texas over Washington based on a coin flip. At least it wasn’t for the gear, officially anyway. And Snoop Dogg will be giving up his support for USC to cross-town rival UCLA because his son picked the Bruins, where he’ll join P. Diddy’s kid on the team. Cornerback Iman Marshall, a big-time USC signee, has a self-styled “commitment video” that’s particularly absurd.

But the coaches and the media outlets that cover college football recruiting (of which there are an astonishingly high number) take it all very seriously indeed. As the parent of a DI player (at Cal, see above), *I* took it very seriously.

These various publications generally rate high school players being recruited via a “star system” of from two to five stars, with five stars being reserved for top 50 players, four stars for the next 250 (numbers 51-300), three stars for the next 500, and two stars for players who are considered “mid-major” and thus not good enough for the top conferences and teams. Alabama’s current recruiting class is usually reputed to be the nation’s best, for the fifth straight year, averaging out to 4.08 stars. And while it’s not much ado about nothing, it’s much ado about a lot less than you’d think, and in a different way than you probably think. Continue reading

“It just feels better and safer to me”

FeelingsThe Sunday edition of The Los Angeles Times included a story about Bob Sears, an Orange County pediatrician who provides comfort to parents who doubt the efficacy of vaccinations for their children. Although he claims not to be an anti-vaxxer himself, about half of his patients forgo them entirely and he offers his own alternative and selective vaccination schedules to the others, which delay or eliminate a variety of immunizations that science strongly supports.

“We eliminated endemic measles in the U.S. in 2000. It’s now 2014 and we’re at 400 cases. Why?” Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said in an interview in June (the number of cases has risen by another 50 percent since). “Because people listen to Bob Sears. And, frankly, I blame him far more than I do the Jenny McCarthys of this world. Because he’s a doctor. And he should know more.” As the Times reports, Sears and his ilk are having an impact. “California parents are choosing to forgo vaccinating their kindergarten-age children at twice the rate they did seven years ago, a fact public health experts said is contributing to the re-emergence of measles and could lead to outbreaks of other diseases.”

I was struck by the article’s concluding line, which was a quote from a mother anxious about vaccinations for her young children and apparently desperate for someone to tell her that delaying or avoiding them is okay. “It’s not really research-based,” she said. “It just feels better and safer to me.”

In life generally and in the investing world, avoiding the findings of careful research on account of “a feeling” is extremely dangerous business. We all tend to like to follow feelings, ideologies, herds and stories instead of good data. Doing so is in our nature. But if we want to maximize the likelihood of positive outcomes, we need to be data-driven at every level and all the time.

Proof Negative

DisconfirmationI have regularly argued that in investing, as in most things in life, disconfirmation is more valuable than confirmation (see here, for example). In other words, we learn more from what doesn’t work than from what does. That’s largely because induction is the way science advances.

We want deductive proof, but have to settle for induction. That’s because science never fully proves anything. It analyzes the available data and, when the force of the data is strong enough, it makes tentative conclusions. But these conclusions are always subject to modification or even outright rejection based upon further evidence gathering. The great value of data is not so much that it points toward the correct conclusion (even though it does), but that it allows us the ability to show that some things are conclusively wrong.

In other words, confirming evidence adds to the inductive case but doesn’t prove anything conclusively. Correlation is not causation and all that. Thus disconfirming evidence is immensely (and far more) valuable. It allows us conclusively to eliminate some ideas, approaches or hypotheses. Continue reading

Meaning is Expensive

DataI occasionally write for outside publications. When those publications are digital iterations of traditional media outlets, their editors tend to be especially vigilant about keeping posts to 400-600 words (as compared with my 4,000 word monstrosity at The Big Picture today). That’s because their research says that few readers will go beyond that length, no matter how good the content (which is a real problem for me since I tend to favor and write long and fairly involved pieces). Accordingly, information can readily be provided. But meaning, which takes careful sifting and evaluation of evidence, must remain rare indeed. Continue reading

Smart Investing is Reality-Based

YAZ backBarry Ritholz has published one of my pieces at his terrific blog, The Big Picture, today. Here’s a taste.

When I was a kid in the 1960s, obsessing over baseball players and stats, plenty of people were telling me to question everything, but the implicit (and erroneous) suggestion was that I reject everything. Instead, I suggest honoring the past without being bound by it. Sabermetrics doesn’t eliminate the need for old-fashioned scouting. Consistent with Robert Hagstrom’s idea that investing is the last liberal art, we should always explore and learn, combine thoughts from multiple sources and disciplines, try to think nimbly because the need for new approaches is ongoing, and we should test and re-test our ideas. I think that idea applies to baseball too.

If we are going to succeed, we’re going to have to ask questions and keep asking questions. Data won’t give us all the answers, but all of our good, objective answers — upon which we should build our investment (and baseball) beliefs — will be consistent with the data. Thus our processes should be data-driven at every point. Smart investing is reality-based. As James Thurber (and later Casey Stengel) would have it, “You could look it up.”

I hope you’ll read it all (and it’s a lot).

Smart Investing is Reality-Based

That’s So Random

Investment Belief #4: Randomness must be actively accounted for as part of the investing equation

InvestmentBeliefssm2 (2)For at least the course of my lifetime, we Americans – all of whom are said to be “created equal” – have held to a straightforward construct of the American Dream, where it’s always morning in America. In its telling, we are a people of unlimited power, promise and potential. The keys to our success are not status, wealth or connections, but rather ability, ambition, and drive. Anybody can become whatever he or she wants. Life is thus a ladder, there to be climbed by anybody willing to step up.

James Truslow Adams coined this evocative phrase in his 1931 book, The Epic of America. His American Dream is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is…a dream…in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

Over the last few decades, a darker vision has grown up. Many of those who claim to have “done their part” by going to school, gaining new skills or working hard do not perceive themselves to have received reward commensurate with their efforts and abilities, leading to great disappointment and some remarkable income inequality. Indeed, since at least the dawning of the 21st Century, this Dream has turned more nightmarish and been deemed outside the reach of many. Investments haven’t seemed to live up to their earlier promise either, with two major financial crises since 2000 terrifying an entire generation of potential investors. It’s as if (in the words of the critic Andy Greenwald), by some cruel trick, we have come to realize too late that someone or something has tipped the ladder of success sideways, the rungs casting shadows tall as prison bars.

As a consequence, political activists of all stripes actively point blame and propose solutions. But on a personal level, we are all prone to self-serving bias – our tendency to attribute our successes to or own effort and skill but to attribute less desirable outcomes to bad luck. In point of fact, and irrespective of the political conclusions one draws from the current state of the American Dream, luck (and, if you have a spiritual bent, grace) plays an enormous role in our lives – both good and bad – just as luck plays an enormous role in many specific endeavors, from investing to poker to coin-flipping to winning a Nobel Prize. We don’t like to think that much of what happens (and happens to us) is the result of luck – i.e., randomness. We hate the idea of so much that is so important being outside of our control. But how we feel about a given proposition tells us precisely nothing about whether or not it is true and there is no disputing the facts. The random is an important factor in our lives, and, despite how counterintuitive and contradictory it may sound, we need to plan accordingly. Continue reading

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