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Don’t Just Do Something—Stand There

Humans prefer to do something rather than nothing. We like office environments that are a “hive of activity” and commend “men of action.” When stuck in a traffic jam, we will take an alternate route just to keep moving, even if it prolongs the journey. We tend, though, to conflate activity with productivity, mistaking the people whom we see doing the most with those who are the most valuable.

We see this bias in many domains. Our political leaders tend to respond to a crisis with ill-considered policies that capture attention but often do little good and may even do harm. It would be unacceptable for them to stand by and simply do nothing. While serving as both vice chairman of Harding Loevner and as chairman of a professional soccer club that competes in the English Football League (EFL), I have been struck by the parallels between investing and sports when it comes to the biases that damage effective decision-making. Studies have looked at penalty kicks in soccer. When a penalty is awarded, the ball is placed 12 yards from the center of the goal and a kicker gets the opportunity to score with only the goalkeeper standing in the way. It turns out that because of the goalkeeper’s bias for action, the optimal place to kick the ball is directly at the center of the goal. A goalkeeper will almost always dive one way or another in anticipation. If he dives the wrong way, he’s forgiven as having simply guessed wrong, or as being sent the wrong way by the kicker’s supposed feint. If he dives the right way, he has a chance to stop the ball entering the goal. If he merely stands in the middle, however, he is the subject of much abuse for doing nothing.

Investors fall victim to similar pressures and impulses. The immediate costs of transacting are low, and the propensity to transact is high. The result is that investors transact too much, and their returns suffer. They tend to transact at the wrong time, buying after prices have risen, and selling after prices have fallen.

Underlying these behaviors is a general misunderstanding of the roles of luck and skill. In sports and in investing, short-term results are the outcome of a combination of the two. Yet, we tend both to attribute the outcome more to skill than to luck and to extrapolate a series of outcomes (good or bad) into the future. This tendency stems from our deep-seated need for explanation, and a need to feel we are in control even when we are not. This occurs particularly in those sports, like soccer, that are generally low-scoring affairs. Unlike in basketball, for example, where there will be more than a hundred points in a game, the average number of goals in a professional soccer game is roughly three. The result of a single game will largely be driven by luck—one bobble of the ball, the inches between hitting a goalpost and scoring, a poor refereeing decision. Yet the narrative in post-match interviews is seldom “we got lucky.” At least, it’s seldom the case that “we got lucky” when the interviewee’s team wins. When the team loses, the loss is the result of bad luck! How similar this is to investment narratives, where there seems to be only two kinds of investment managers: the talented, and the unlucky.

At my own club, last season, we had a pair of games scheduled close together. In the first, we gave up a 1-0 lead late on and ended up with a tied game. In the second, we scored a late goal from an unexpected source to win 1-0. The narrative of the first was that “we didn’t know how to hold a lead,” and of the second that “we were gutsy and played to the end.” Same team, same players, both close games, but different outcomes drove radical differences in explanation.

As in investing, in sports a series of poor results needs a narrative to explain it, and action to reverse it. Often that action is to replace the coach. Acting to replace him when results go the wrong way attributes far too much causality to the coach. George Steinbrenner famously hired Billy Martin five times as coach of the New York Yankees. Between the Premier League and the three levels of the EFL, more than half of the 92 clubs replaced their manager this season alone. Replacing a manager tends to come at considerable cost—he (it’s always he) will have his own preferences for players and staff, and perhaps may even want to change the style of play completely—with little evidence that the players who actually kick the ball around improve their own performances as a result. Because luck occurs randomly while skill is reasonably constant, after teams are unlucky for a stretch their luck will tend to mean revert. The “manager bounce” is a well-established phenomenon whereby short-term results usually improve after a manager is replaced. It is a statistical phenomenon, though, that has little to do with on-the-pitch performance.

For asset owners, there is a similar temptation to replace a manager after a period when returns have disappointed, but, alas, unlike the fans of a soccer club, the clients of an investment manager do not enjoy the mean-reverting returns that the manager provides those who stuck with them.

For asset owners, there is a similar temptation to replace an investment manager after a period when returns have disappointed. But, alas, unlike the loyal fans of a soccer club, the former clients of an investment manager do not enjoy the mean-reverting returns that the manager provides those who stuck with them. There is plenty of evidence that investors’ urge to act is damaging to their long-term returns. In mutual funds, on average, dollar-weighted returns that shareholders receive from their funds lag the time-weighted returns that the funds generate. This “behavior gap” is directly the result of poorly timed action on the part of shareholders.

Incentives and market structures only make the bias toward action greater. One reason that English soccer coaches get changed is that, once the season starts, players may not be traded outside the month of January. A result is that during the January transfer window it’s almost non-stop activity. The period has become its own media event, with fans, players’ agents, and media pundits all calling for teams to make their moves. This, even though only a few such moves ever have significant impact on a team’s results, and despite evidence that prices paid for players tend to be higher than between seasons.

The investing industry has many incentives to transact; indeed, the revenue models of many participants depend on transactions taking place. When I started in investment management, in London in the late 1970s, our fees were not based on assets managed as is the case today. We were paid when we made a transaction in our clients’ discretionary portfolios. Why is the portfolio turnover of the average equity mutual fund so high, when doing nothing and allowing returns to compound over prolonged periods of time is often a superior way to generate market-beating returns? It’s because the investment industry exploits clients’ bias in favor of action. Managers’ actions are described in emotional terms. We read of “conviction,” of “exciting opportunities” and “story stocks.” The reality is more mundane. Successful investing is about resisting the urge and the calls to action, knowing when to sit on your hands and do absolutely zilch.

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Down the Rabbit Hole

In trying to make sense of the state of things today, I found myself thinking of snippets I’ve heard from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Until recently, however, I had never actually read the story. So, I went to and ordered a copy of the entire Alice in Wonderland Collection (Alice’s Adventures UndergroundAlice’s Adventures in WonderlandAlice Through the Looking Glass, and The Hunting of the Snark). While I was underwhelmed by the character development in these stories, I did find some takeaways that seem relevant today. Still, perhaps the most provocative line from Alice that I came across is one that was written not by Lewis Carroll but by Czech film director Jan Švankmajer for his 1988 film Alice.

The film opens with Alice saying, in part, “But, I nearly forgot, you must close your eyes otherwise you won’t see anything.” After all, Alice would never have experienced Wonderland or journeyed through the looking glass if she had not closed her eyes. And we’d have no Mad Hatter, no March Hare, and, of course, no Red Queen.

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Too Much Information

In the late 1950s, in his book Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits, Phil Fisher recommended making investment decisions based on “scuttlebutt,” the kind of information an investor could get by asking around. This entailed tracking down and interrogating customers and competitors, employees, and former employees. Doing research, in the sense of gathering evidence and analyzing it to reach a conclusion, was hard work, but enabled analysts committed to such intellectual labor to obtain an edge over their competitors simply by having better, and more complete, information.

Indeed, when I started my career in investing in the late 1970s, obtaining even basic financial info about a German car company still required going to Germany and knocking on the company’s door.

Now gathering information no longer takes much effort. We are deluged by floods of data—not only the details of prices, volumes, margins, and capital investments of individual companies, but also highly granular data about credit card receipts, numbers of cars in parking lots, or words used in media reports. These new, “alternative” sources of information have briefly given some stock pickers a slight edge in predicting short-term stock price movements. The informational advantage provided by such data is but fleeting, however; once this data is commercially accessible to everyone, the advantage disappears. Thus, even for the short-term investor, information gathering itself no longer provides a lasting edge.

For long-term investors, the relationship to information has changed even more fundamentally. You no longer need to seek information; it finds you. Your job, rather, is to act as what Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, called an “intelligent filter”—determining the information that is important and ignoring data that (in the case of the investor) doesn’t help you forecast cash flows and estimate the value of a security.

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Stock Portfolios, Football Teams, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves about Each

The world is complex and unpredictable, but humans prefer order, and cause and effect, so therefore tell stories that purport to explain what is simply random. Narratives pre-date writing. They help make events coherent and memorable, while arousing emotions in the listener. Behavioral biases, which all humans share, are in many cases essentially products of the stories we tell ourselves. The more detailed the story, the more entertaining it is and the more powerfully it can affect our emotions. We love stories. That can often be wonderful, but in decision making it can be dangerous.

In investing, there has been at least a little progress towards improving decision making by resisting the power of stories. Quantitative investors describe how they adhere to purely objective rules (rules and lines of code that, of course, they themselves have written) to govern their behavior and reduce bias. “Quantamentalists,” another breed of investor, allow some judgement to enter their decision making once they have established the framework. They do this in part in recognition that, as a rule, most humans don’t like rules. We suffer from what psychologists call “algorithm aversion,” i.e. preferring to go with our gut. That preference results from our need to remain in control, or at least to believe we are. Permitting human override of an algorithm may degrade the quality of its output, but in granting themselves the comfort of exercising some degree of control, decision makers likely improve their rate of adherence, for an overall improvement in outcomes. I fully expect self-driving cars to come with a steering wheel that will have no impact on direction of travel, but will allow the human passenger to feel more secure than if she were simply sitting back and giving herself over fully to the computer under the hood.

In his book The Success Equation, Michael Mauboussin writes extensively about the importance of a strong process and rules in activities where the immediate outcome is driven by luck and skill. He describes how it is possible to improve skill through what has become known as deliberate practice: repetitive, purposeful, and systematic repetition with immediate and specific feedback. Luck, however, can only be managed by having a strong process, with rules or standards constraining decision making and the urge to impute too much importance to our role in any one result. In activities such as investing or team sports—arenas where skill and luck both come into play—narrative is particularly seductive, making adherence to this recipe for success a constant battle.