I’m not a fisherman, but I was fascinated recently to come across an article about the science behind the creation and use of fishing lures. Size, shape, color and even taste all matter. Interestingly, however, there is a surprising degree to which the effectiveness of the lure doesn’t matter commercially. For example, there is a dizzying array of bass lures in variations of blues and purples (see at right, for example) even though bass cannot see those colors as anything other than gray. But people buying lures seem to like those colors. Those involved in the research and sale of fishing lures refer to this phenomenon as the “jewelry effect.”
“We design lures for the fish, but fish don’t buy lures,” says Keith A. Jones, a director of research for an Iowa lure-maker. “It’s hard to convince anglers that a lure’s color doesn’t make much difference.” Scientific reality doesn’t even get much respect in the fishing world.
Jones recognizes that, to be commercially successful, lures need to be aesthetically pleasing to the people who buy them. Accordingly, some lures that work well need a design change to sell. Ted Dzialo, executive director of the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum in Hayward, Wisconsin, simply captures the essence of the issue. “I think most lures are designed to catch more fishermen than fish.”
If this sounds remarkably similar to the money management business to you, you’re not alone. So-called “smart beta” is really good marketing because it takes advantage of demand for beta-driven solutions but it is no panacea. Moreover, “factor investing” can trace its origins back to at least Benjamin Graham and is hardly new to smart investors. After the financial crisis, consumers rushed to money managers offering tactical management in order to try to avoid the next big downturn even though there is precious little evidence that it works. And hedge funds continue to lure major assets and major investors – perhaps because those investors want to prove to themselves and others that they’re rich – even though hedge fund performance has been, in two words, truly dreadful.
There are plenty of other examples, of course, but you get the idea. Good investing is necessarily a long-term enterprise and we humans struggle badly with the long-term. The short-term is too alluring. Our efforts at hyperbolic discounting generally suck. Thus we are always prone to eat the cake and skip our work-outs.
Those who market money management are well aware of these tendencies. And, to be fair, there isn’t much that’s sexy about good money management. We want the next Apple rather than diversification. We want to avoid the next big crash but every last drop of upside. We want to get rich quick and think we’re smart enough to find that next big thing. But we are routinely disappointed and, when we think we’ve (finally!) found the Holy Grail, it turns out that Holy Grail Investment Management is run by Bernie Madoff.
Most money management firms set out first and foremost to lure and catch investment dollars and only secondarily to manage the assets won effectively. The jewelry effect is at least as prevalent in money management as in fishing. But pretty it’s not.