The Great Myths of Investing

GreatMythsAs the great Mark Twain (may have) said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” That’s particularly true in the investment world because we know, to a mathematical certainty, that avoiding errors provides more bang for the buck than making correct calls and generating outperformance. Fixing what we “know for sure that just ain’t so” provides a remarkable opportunity for investment success.

On the other hand, it simply doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend enormous amounts of time and energy looking for a strategy or a manager that might (but probably won’t) outperform by just a little bit. As the great Spanish artist Pablo Picasso put it, “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.” What we want to do is to find the next great investor, the terrific new strategy, the market sectors that are about to heat up or the next Apple. But what we should do is eliminate the things that make it so hard for us to get ahead. Accordingly, I will highlight some of the great myths of investing — ideas that lots of people, alleged experts even, claim to be true and act as as though are true “that just ain’t so.”

There are lots of myths at work in our lives, of course, falsehoods that are often believed and which are used to further a favored narrative. But George Washington didn’t really cut down a cherry tree and wax eloquent about not telling a lie as a consequence. Isaac Newton didn’t come up with his theory of gravity because an apple fell on his head. Columbus didn’t discover that the earth was round (that had been established centuries before). Ben Franklin didn’t fly a kite in a storm and discover electricity. And Einstein never flunked math. If any of these are news to you, I’m sorry to have had to break it to you.

Such myths persist because they “work” in some way. Their story elements — ease of recall, readily adaptability, explanatory power — make them useful and even important.  But utility and truth are hardly the same things and neither are utility and helpfulness.

So here is my list of the top ten great myths of investing. Since they aren’t true and are indeed damaging, if you can eliminate them from your mind and your investment process, your results will necessarily improve. 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

Active Management Required

FT-active-managerWe have all heard the arguments about the flaws of active management and we all should have looked closely at the underlying data. Over any random 12-month period, about 60 percent of mutual fund managers underperform. Lengthen the time period examined to 10 years and the proportion of managers who underperform rises to about 70 percent. Even worse, equity managers who underperform do so by roughly twice as much as the outperforming funds beat their chosen benchmarks and the success of the outperformers doesn’t tend to persist. The SPIVA Scorecard from S&P demonstrates this phenomenon regularly and routinely.

Institutional investors fare no better. On a risk-adjusted basis, 24 percent of funds fall significantly short of their chosen market benchmarks and have negative alpha, 75 percent of funds roughly match the market and have zero alpha, and well under 1 percent achieve superior results after costs—a number not significantly different from zero in a statistical sense. Pension fundshedge funds, endowments and private equity funds all provide similar outcomes in slightly different settings.

Meanwhile, and not surprisingly, assets are following performance. Just a decade or so ago, passive investing was a relatively small slice of the investment universe. On November 1, 2003, just 12 percent of all U.S. open-end mutual fund and ETF assets (not including fund-of-fund or money-market assets) were invested in passively managed products, according to Morningstar. Today that percentage stands at 27 percent and is growing fast. In the equity markets, fully 35 percent of all investments are now held in passive vehicles.

The obvious conclusion from all this data is that active management has lost. Sure, most money is still placed with active managers (at least for now), the story goes, but active management is like Nazi Germany after D-Day. The war wasn’t won (yet) and a lot of work remained to be done, but the outcome was inevitable. That narrative is prevalent throughout the investment world.

However, and to the contrary, I think active management is an absolute necessity. Continue reading

Five Stinkin’ Feet

Investment Belief #5: Process Should Be Prioritized Over Outcomes InvestmentBeliefssm2 (2)

My first baseball memory is from October 16, 1962, the day after my sixth birthday, by which time I was already hooked on what was then the National Pastime. In those days, all World Series games were played during the day. So I hurried home from school on that Tuesday afternoon to turn on the (black-and-white) television and catch what I could of the seventh and deciding game of a great Series at the then-new Candlestick Park in San Francisco between the Giants and the New York Yankees.

Game seven matched New York’s 23-game winner, Ralph Terry (who in 1960 had given up perhaps the most famous home run in World Series history to lose the climatic seventh game), against San Francisco’s 24-game-winner, Jack Sanford. Sanford had pitched a three-hit shutout against Terry in game two, winning 2-0, while Terry had returned the favor in game five, defeating Sanford in a 5-3, complete game win. Game seven was brilliantly pitched on both sides. While Terry carried a perfect game into the sixth inning (broken up by Sanford) and a two-hit shutout into the ninth, Sanford was almost as good. The Yankees pushed their only run across in the fifth on singles by Bill “Moose” Skowron and Clete Boyer, a walk to Terry and a double-play grounder by Tony Kubek.

1962 WS ProgramsWhen Terry took the mound for the bottom of the ninth, clutching to that 1-0 lead (the idea of a “closer” had not been concocted yet), he faced pinch-hitter Matty Alou, who drag-bunted his way aboard. His brother Felipe Alou and Chuck Hiller struck out, bringing the great future Hall-of-Famer Willie Mays to the plate, who had led the National League in batting, runs and homers that year, as the Giants’ sought desperately to stay alive. Mays doubled to right, but Roger Maris (who had famously hit 61 homers the year before and who was a better fielder than is commonly assumed) cut the ball off at the line. His quick throw to Bobby Richardson and Richardson’s relay home forced Alou to hold at third base.

With first base open, Giants cleanup hitter and future Hall-of-Famer Willie McCovey stepped into the batter’s box while another future Hall-of-Famer, Orlando Cepeda, waited on deck. Yankees Manager Ralph Houk decided to let the right-handed Terry pitch to the left-handed-hitting McCovey, who had tripled in his previous at-bat and homered off Terry in game two, even though Cepeda was a right-handed hitter. With the count at one-and-one, McCovey got an inside fastball and rifled a blistering shot toward right field but low and just a step to Richardson’s left. The second baseman, who Terry had thought was out of position, snagged it and the Series was over. McCovey would later say that it was among the hardest balls he ever hit.

“It was an instant thing, a bam-bam type of play,” recalled Tom Haller, who caught the game for the Giants. “A bunch of us jumped up like, ‘There it is,’ then sat down because it was over.

“It was one of those split-second things. ‘Yeah! No!’ ”

Hall-of-Famer Yogi Berra, who has pretty much seen it all, said, “When McCovey hit the ball, it lifted me right out of my shoes. I never saw a last game of a World Series more exciting.”

Had McCovey’s frozen rope been hit just a bit higher or just a bit to either side, the Giants would have been crowned champions. As recounted by Henry Schulman in the San Francisco Chronicle, it was a matter of “[f]ive stinkin’ feet.”

Tremendous skill was exhibited by the players on that October afternoon over half a century ago. But the game – and ultimately the World Series championship – was decided by a bit of luck: that “five stinkin’ feet.” 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

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

Betting on Investment Skill

Deanna BrooksIn 2006, the TradingMarkets/Playboy 2006 Stock Picking Contest was won by Playboy’s Miss May of 1998, Deanna Brooks (shown right). Her portfolio, which bet heavily on oil and gold stocks, gained 46.43 percent on the year and every stock in it provided double-digit returns. She liked Yamana Gold because “What girl doesn’t like a little bling? I’m hot for gold this year.…” It wasn’t her only nugget of sterling analysis. She also liked Petrobras because “oil is making money” and IBM because computers “aren’t going away.” She wasn’t the only Playmate to find a rich vein of success. A higher percentage of participating Playmates bested the S&P 500’s 2006 returns than active money managers. Think about that for a moment. Over the course of a full year, a bunch of Playmates outperformed a whopping majority of highly trained and experienced professionals with vast resources who spend all day every day trying to beat the market.

It’s easy to say that the Playmates got lucky, and they did. But we’d never expect a guy swimming laps at the YMCA to beat Michael Phelps across the pool, a girl off the street to beat a Grandmaster in chess, or an unschooled janitor to solve an insanely complex math problem amidst a spot of cleaning in the afternoon that the best and the brightest need years to figure out. Not even once.

If something like that actually were to happen, we’d treat is as a marvel (as the movie, Good Will Hunting, excerpted above, does), not just as a whimsical curiosity to be used for the purposes of garnering a bit of publicity and ogling attractive women.

It’s tempting simply to say that the contest is too small a sample size to be meaningful and move on. Had she stuck with investing, Miss May’s performance would miss and miss by a lot, probably sooner rather than later, as all investment performance tends to be mean reverting. But we also know that sample size doesn’t mean much when little luck is involved. It doesn’t matter how many times I race Michael Phelps. The chances of my winning will always be vanishingly small — effectively zero.

It’s also important to emphasize (as Michael Mauboussin did in his excellent book, The Success Equation and at The Big Picture Conference recently) the paradox of skill when it comes to investing. As overall skill improves, aggregate performance improves and luck becomes more important to individual outcomes. On account of the growth and development of the investment industry, John Bogle could quite consistently write his senior thesis at Princeton on the successes of active fund management and then go on some years later to found Vanguard and become the primary developer and intellectual forefather of indexing. In other words, the ever-increasing aggregate skill (supplemented by massive computing power) of the investment world has come largely to cancel itself out.

These explanations are good as far as they go, but they hardly tell the entire story. Lady Luck is crucial to investment outcomes. There is no getting around it. Managing one’s portfolio so as to benefit the most from good luck and (even more importantly) to get hurt the least by bad luck are the keys to investment management. Doing so well is a remarkable skill, but not the sort of skill that’s commonly assumed, even (especially!) by professionals. 

More to the point, if investment returns depend that heavily on luck and real investment skill is that elusive and rare, what should we do with our (or our clients’) money? For some answers, we turn to the world of…poker? That’s right — pokerContinue reading

Process and Performance

PerformanceBoth of the following statements are ubiquitous among those offering investment products – the first in writing and the second spoken, as enthusiastically as plausibility allows (and then some).

  1. Past performance is not indicative of future results; and
  2. Let me tell you about our performance history.

Despite their rank inconsistency, they are presented with respect to the same offering, and even with a straight face.

My job includes listening to sales pitches that invariably include the second of those statements, supported by details prominently displayed in the paperwork while the first statement is buried therein. But if I do my job right, I will focus on the investment process at issue ahead of performance, no matter how much it’s accentuated.  But across our industry as a whole, that’s not the way things are usually done. Continue reading

Jake Locker, Randomness and Outcomes

I often write about the relative importance of luck and skill in various endeavors, including sports and investing (here, for example) and how the outcomes in such things — heavily influenced by luck — can cause us to miss important aspects of the process involved, which is much more important in the long run (for example, here). This past week’s loss by my San Diego Chargers to the Tennessee Titans provides a terrific example of how these things work.

Titan quarterback Jake Locker is 2-1 after three games and has thrown zero interceptions so far this season. He also led the Titans on a 94-yard drive for a touchdown to beat the Bolts as time expired (against a very soft zone defense — arrrggggg!). However, Locker’s overall statistics this season are virtually identical to last year’s mediocre numbers when the Titans had a blah 6-10 record (as Grantland’s Bill Barnwell has carefully pointed out). Is he much improved or not?

It’s too early to tell for sure, but the following play (courtesy of Bolts from the Blue) offers one good data point and a helpful jumping off point toward my still quite tentative view that the overall statistics may be a better gauge of where he is than Locker’s won-loss record and lack of picks so far this season.

Gilchrist

Wow.

Marcus Gilchrist of the Chargers flat-out drops an interception with just seconds left in the game that would have secured the win for my guys. It isn’t on the level of the late-game Marlon McCree post-interception fumble that cost the Chargers a 2007 play-off game to New England (I was in the stands for that one), but it’s still pretty bad.  Obviously, the play isn’t Locker’s fault in that he hit Delanie Walker in stride and Walker tipped the football straight to Gilchrist. But think for a bit what this play demonstrates.

If Marcus makes the pick, the outcome (Titans loss) could cause us to conclude that Locker isn’t really progressing.  We’d look at his losing record and think that he could only score 13 points at home against the Chargers and couldn’t get it done in the two-minute drill. But since Gilchrist dropped the ball and the Titans went on the win, we may now forget that Locker badly missed a wide open Damian Williams in the end zone just before the game-winning play, didn’t make a great throw on the final play (although it was pretty good) and that Locker was just 2-for-11 on throws that traveled 15 yards or more in the air for the game.

These events provide great examples of how outcomes can disguise crucial elements of the process that — together with a significant amount of randomness — dictates those outcomes.  For example, the Gilchrist drop shows how and why players who outperform for a given stretch tend to regress toward the mean. That’s also why, despite the sample size being much too small to be sure, a lot of talent and, as a very young quarterback, a much better chance of significant improvement than more seasoned pros, it seems more probable that Locker is the player we thought he was last year than a budding star, despite some very good outcomes to this point in the season.