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Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Uber Irrational

Wet and Irrational

A few weeks ago a group of French taxi drivers attacked the US singer Courtney Love's car as she tried to get to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. As it turned out this wasn't a Franco-American cultural argument over the relative merits of Ms Love's brand of alternative rock, but a side-effect of an industrial dispute that has its origins in the complexity of behavioral economics.

In fact, at root, it's about whether you'd like to be able to find a cab in the rain in New York. 

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Can You Forecast Better than a Dart Throwing Chimp?

The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing - Archilochus
Cover Story

Philip Tetlock has spent many years studying the ability of experts to predict important events in their sphere of interest and come to the not entirely astonishing conclusion that they aren't much good at it. Soviet experts, for instance, missed the possibility that the Soviet Union might stop existing. On the other hand, they're exceptionally good at promoting themselves: being wrong is no impediment to fame, it seems.

Tetlock has discovered that people fall into two groups that he labels 'hedgehogs' and 'foxes', Hedgehogs have one big idea and tend to interpret the world in terms of it. Foxes have lots of ideas and are more flexible in the face of change. Unsurprisingly foxes are better at predicting stuff; but does that make them better investors?

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Bitcoin Bugs' Belief

Bitcoin Bugs

From time to time something odd happens to the gold price – it goes down. This is usually a shock to the advocates of anti-fiat money who’ve been squirreling away the shiny stuff against the inevitable day when nation states collapse. They get quite cross when they discover that the said nation states may in fact be flogging their gold at historically high prices and driving the price down. Apparently the thought that countries might resist collapsing hadn’t occurred to the gold bugs.

In the meantime we’re seen the rise of Bitcoin, one of a number of cryptocurrencies that offer freedom from central regulation. Bitcoin and its ilk isn’t backed by anything, which makes it more than ordinarily a punt on the perverse willingness of people to believe in ephemera. And that, of course, is simply another case of history repeating itself. Have we learned the lesson?

Friday, 3 July 2015

Lost In Your Own Memories: Age And The Room Effect

Remember ...

Old people, you may have noticed, have a much better recollection of past events than they have of current ones. Memory is a very odd thing; what we remember and what we don’t isn’t always entirely rational, and the lessons we learn from our memories aren’t always the ones we ought to.

For investors, who all too often rely on their unsupported memories for insight into what they should be doing, this opens up a world of potential dangers. Although, as it turns out, simply wandering from one room to another can be enough to ruin your portfolio.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Corporate Bias: When Projects Go Bad

Bypass Surgery

As I recently blogged in Mobile Bypass Surgery For Banks over on Tomorrow’s Transactions, where the more technical side of my financial blogging occurs these days, the recent system outages at Royal Bank of Scotland, where customers were once again unable to access their own money, are just the tip of an industry-wide problem.  But that’s only half the story, because technology failures are always mediated by psychological ones.

As we know well enough – the Big List of Behavioral Biases is testament to the issue – individuals suffer from a vast range of behavioral issues, with predictably depressing financial consequences. But similar problems also afflict corporations, because managers suffer from the same issues as investors, and the results can be catastrophic for investors.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Gaia And The Ambivalent Investor


We're very keen on people who are very definite about things - even if it subsequently turns out they're wrong or delusional (or both). We're less interested in people who are less certain about things. We don't value ambivalence in our gurus.

Unsurprisingly we're wrong about this. The ambivalent investor is sometimes that rare thing, a genuinely sensible expert in a field dominated by loud mouthed, impossibly certain charlatans. And mostly it doesn't matter which side of the fence you favour, you'll be better off sitting on it. 

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Mr Popper's Predictions

In My Experience

In my experience whenever you hear someone saying "in my experience" you're about to get an earful of incoherent nonsense justified by the observer's single perspective. It's nearly always dangerous nonsense, justified by specific examples taken from a single snapshot in time.

Well, in my experience, personal observations are typified by overconfidence, colored by hindsight bias and impervious to evidence suggesting that they're wrong. They're flung about with gay abandon, but have as much in common with objective truth as a report from an analyst.  The future is unknowable, anyone who claims special knowledge is either lying or mad. And possibly both.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The Emperor's New Markets


Markets often exhibit behavior bordering on the delusional - frequently from the wrong side of the border. Investors seem unable to disassociate specific investment opportunities from broader economic realities - how many corporations in the history of the world have ever justified a P/E of over 100? Yet, from time to time, people will fall over each other to invest in these "opportunities", seemingly oblivious to the enduring nature of competition in markets.

Of course, financial markets are just a peculiarly public forum for demonstrating this irrationality, and one in which it's possible to quantify the scale of it, albeit only in hindsight. But human mass delusional behavior isn't confined to markets, it's just other social settings make it more socially acceptable.  To be human is to be be mad, but we don't have to be poor as well.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

I Don't Know What I Like (And I Don't Know What It's Worth, Either)


One of the fundamental axioms of economics is that we know what we like: we have preferences, they're consistent across time and they can be revealed by careful experimentation. This, of course, is utter nonsense. Yet it's not just a guiding principle of economics but is also a rough and ready rule we live our lives by. We make decisions and then we justify them, after the event, because to do otherwise would make a mockery of our choices.

But because we do actually make decisions we must, in a sense, really know what we like, even if we're habitually inconsistent. Unfortunately, outside of our own specialised areas of expertise we don't know how to absolutely value things and all too often we assign a value based on entirely superfluous data intermingled with a bit of relative valuation, reckoning that a Porsche 911 Carrera is worth more than a child's teddy bear. We exhibit coherence but in an arbitrary fashion - a behavior known, rather unoriginally, as coherent arbitrariness.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Novelty, Unicorns and the Stressed Investor

Bad Hair Days

There’s a Groundhog Day effect in financial markets: wait long enough and another crisis will occur and everyone will be stunned and surprised. In fact they’ll be just as stunned and surprised as they were the last time one occurred. We’ve the attention span of a distracted goldfish when it comes to noticing the disconcerting regularity of market mishaps.

But although market upheavals are frequent they’re not so frequent that we get used to them. The steady state is a constant background hum of noise punctuated by occasional bouts of excitement over some stock or other. When a crisis occurs it’s a novelty – and for most of us our response to novelty is to get stressed, and then run around like our hair is on fire. By and large, I'd observe, this is not optimal investing behavior.