If You Like Gin And Marmite, You Are Probably A Better Trader

There are correlations between taste preferences and personality (disorders) which are also highly present on the trading floor — so check your tastes to see if you are already likely to be a winner!

Evidence has been reported that there are correlations between liking certain bitter tastes and certain personality factors.  Personality as generally understood does not really exist; the belief to the contrary is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error.  However, there are some stabilities in character which are or approach being diagnosable as “personality disorders.”  These though are very much in the eye of the beholder in terms of whether or not they impair effectiveness.  It turns out that these same personality stabilities are highly prevalent in competitive professions, so these people must be doing something right.

Researchers from the University of Innsbruck reported as follows:

Individual differences in bitter taste preferences are associated with antisocial personality traits

Bitter tastes are basically self-explanatory.  Marmite and gin and tonic are two obvious examples, but tea or coffee without sugar could be others.  One might also start looking at wine types.

The authors found robust correlations between preferences for such bitter tastes and the Dark Tetrad, which is the Dark Triad plus everyday sadism.  The Dark Triad is one of the stable factors in personality.  It consists of Machiavellianism, psychoticism/psychopathy, and narcissism, at levels below threshold for diagnosis as a personality disorder.

Machiavellianism could also be termed manipulativeness.  It reflects how likely someone is to be devious or to manipulate others for their own benefit.  Psychosis means susceptibility to delusions.  Some false beliefs — especially false positive beliefs about the self — are correlated with individual success.

Some authors in the literature include psychopathic tendencies instead of psychosis.  These tendencies come from a wide potential array of behaviours.  Some or all of the following may be present:

  • glibness
  • superficial charm
  • grandiosity
  • pathological lying
  • manipulation of others
  • lack of remorse and/or guilt
  • shallow affect
  • lack of empathy
  • failure to accept responsibility
  • stimulation-seeking behaviour
  • impulsivity
  • irresponsibility
  • parasitic orientation
  • lack of realistic life goals
  • poor behavioral controls
  • early childhood behaviour problems
  • criminal activity

Obviously some of these are very unhelpful.  But we can imagine that others could be extremely useful.

Narcissism is an extreme level of self-absorption and self-belief.  This looks as though it will be really quite useful in terms of allowing people to fail repeatedly with no adverse ego consequences.

We know that the Dark Triad –and presumably also the Dark Tetrad, since that is very similar — are heavily over-represented in certain professions.  That is: investment banking, journalism and politics.  All of these professions are extremely competitive and perhaps also require a certain amount of ability to exploit others.  This can therefore explain why the Dark Triad would often be seen on the trading floor as well.

Of course, this shows correlation rather than causation.  However, since we have a plausible explanation as well as a correlation — it seems likely that being a Dark Triad person will be valuable when trading.  And now, since we have observed correlations* with bitter taste preferences, there is an easy way to check!

(Disclosure: I am well-known for liking ridiculous amounts of Marmite.  I don’t mind a gin and tonic either.  And I wrote this: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Psychology-Successful-Trading-Behavioural-Profitability/dp/1138096288/

So that’s one more data point!)

*The Innsbruck researchers say they have succeeded in:

consistently demonstrating a robust relation between increased enjoyment of bitter foods and heightened sadistic proclivities

The Psychology of Successful Trading: see clip below of me explaining my new book!

 

Getting your trading psychology right and understanding that of others are both essential prerequisites to successful trading in financial markets. I discuss the most important elements of trading psychology in my new book.

Buy the book here:

Thanks to Karine Sawan and film crew for video production.

The US Was Defeated In #Vietnam By Systematic Theory Of Mind Error

The US had vast superiority in all assets that were thought to matter but was still defeated in the Vietnam War — why?

It is clear that the US possessed much more in the way of conventional military assets in the conflict with North Vietnam than the opposing forces.  This point is widely accepted so I will not spend much time arguing for it.  For example, the US had tanks while the Viet Cong had no anti-tank weapons.*  US forces had “superb artillery and air support” (Sheehan, p. 447, 1988) which enabled any US troops facing locally superior odds to succeed.  The entire US army fought with the doctrine of “superior firepower” (Sheehan, p. 243, 1988).  The financial resources that the US was able to apply also hugely outweighed those of its opponents in a largely peasant guerrilla army.  Sheehan (p. 624, 1988) writes that commodity aid to South Vietnam reached the staggering figure of $650m in 1966.

This last point is decisive.  It has been wisely observed that:

“Most wars have been wars of attrition, settled by which side had more staying power through the ability to apply men and materiel.” **

The GDP of North Vietnam in 1965 was $6.0bn in 2015 dollars.  The GDP of the US in 1965 was $4.1tn in 2009 dollars — that is, 683x larger.

So why did the US lose?  Consider the following highly insightful quotation.

“When McNamara wants to know what Ho Chi Minh is thinking, he interviews himself.” ***

Robert McNamara was the Secretary of Defense at the time, and so crucial to  managing the war effort.  It is clearly important to know what the enemy is thinking.  McNamara’s error was to do this in the way that most people do.  This is where we come to Theory of Mind.

Theory of Mind is the label in psychology for the way we predict and explain the behaviour of others.  We all do this all the time.  There is a vibrant debate in psychology as to how we do it.  The mainstream view is called “Theory Theory.” This holds that children as young as five, who already have a serviceable Theory of Mind, have formed it by learning a theory of other people.  They are supposed to have done this by most psychologists in a scientific fashion: they propose hypotheses and then confirm or disconfirm them empirically.

I support the opposing view, which is known as Simulation Theory.**** This suggests that we run our Theory of Mind by putting ourselves in the position of others and seeing what we would do.  This, according to the quotations, is exactly what McNamara did.  And it is why he was wrong and why the US lost.

We can see this same factor in action with another quote from a significant protagonist in Vietnam: Green Beret Colonel Kurtz who makes the following  observation on realising that the Viet Cong have removed the arms of all the children in a village who were vaccinated against Polio by US forces.

And then I realized… like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God… the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that!

The surprise of the Colonel is again an illustration of Theory of Mind error.  If his simulation of the Viet Song had been more accurate, he would have been able to predict their action here.  That he was not, and that he was able to see how effective, if inhuman, this strategy was, shows that he was perhaps able to adjust and improve his Theory of Mind more than McNamara was.

It also illustrates the type of Theory of Mind error we should expect.  McNamara was a company man, who was experienced from his time running Ford in systems analysis and data handling.  So when he simulated Ho Chi Minh, he would draw conclusions along the lines of “I am faced with overwhelming odds; all of the analysis says that overwhelming odds always win; I therefore cannot win.”

What this misses out is the “Blut und Boden” point hinted at by Kurtz.  It misses out the will to fight on one’s own soil irrespective of the prospects of success.  It misses out the will to enlist the entire male and female population in the war effort, with many women driving supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail at night without lights under largely ineffective yet heavy US bombing.  It misses out what the French missed at Dien Bien Phu: the will to disassemble artillery pieces and carry them up jungled mountains by hand.

So this is why the US lost.  It is also presumably why my book is held by the following library:

Institute for Defense Analyses Library
IDA Library

Alexandria, VA 22311 United States

You can also buy a copy at the link below if you want to know more about Theory of Mind. ****

* Sheehan, N. (1988)   A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam.  Vintage Books

** “The other side has a vote”, The Economist, Oct 14 2017

***  This quotation is from James Willbanks, an army strategist.  It is written up in The Economist, “Buried Ordnance,” in the issue of Sep 14 2017.  The piece is a review of “The Vietnam War,” a TV documentary by Burns and Novick.

**** Short, T L 2015  Simulation Theory: a Psychological and Philosophical Consideration.  Abingdon: Routledge.  URL: https://www.routledge.com/Simulation-Theory-A-psychological-and-philosophical-consideration/Short/p/book/9781138294349

Attentional Biases And Financial Markets

Attentional Biases are operative in everyone’s psychology; they can affect performance in financial markets because they control what information sources we consider

Are happy people better at picking up information that will make them happen?  Do sad people do the opposite?  Have you wondered how your mood can affect your behaviour in ways you don’t know about?  All of this is true and can be explained by considering one form of a Cognitive Bias called Attentional Bias.

We are subject to approximately 150 Cognitive Biases, at the last count.  All of them affect our thinking without us necessarily knowing too much about when they are at work or what the results are.  My project initially is to list and describe these mental subroutines before critically examining them and assessing how they work in a market environment.  The objective is to allow market participants to look out for the operation of Cognitive Biases in their own thinking and trade on the expectation that they will also figure prominently in the thinking of other players.

One of the most important Cognitive Biases is known as Attentional Bias.  It comes in several forms, but all of them have in common that they systematically slant which information we pay attention to.  Obviously this can be expected to have dramatic effects on thinking and market outcomes.  In this post, I will first describe Attentional Bias and then outline how it might play out in a market setting.

Much of the psychological literature on Attentional Bias looks at what we can term mood congruency.  The basic idea here is that we are more likely to look at information which fits our mood.  So, anxious subjects are more likely to look at anxiety-inducing information and depressed subjects are more likely to consider depressing information.  Clearly this is already rather unhelpful for such subjects, but my aims here are only to look at what this might do in markets.

This is widely important because generalised anxiety affects a significant proportion (estimated at between 5% and 30%) of the population.  This is people who are more-or-less anxious more-or-less all of the time. Since it is a significant  minority, it is likely that some of these subjects participate in financial markets, although it is possible that some anxious individuals will self-select out of stock markets.

Depression of sufficient gravity to merit a psychiatric diagnosis affects about 1% of the population; many more people will experience a less severe depression or a more episodic form.  Again, we can expect plenty of market participants to be depressed when trading.

Experimental investigations of mood-disorder linked Attentional Biases have focused on reaction time studies.  A pair of words was briefly presented to experimental subjects on a computer screen.  Sometimes, one of the words was replaced with a dot, which was the signal that a button should be pressed.  The time it took for subjects to press the button was recorded.  It would typically be in the range of several hundred milliseconds.

Sometimes, the other word presented on the other side of the screen to the dot was a threatening word.  The word could be socially threatening (‘humiliated’) or physically threatening (‘injury.’)  The experimenters found what is known in psychology as an RT spike — or a delay in reaction time.  People took longer to see and react to the dot if a threatening word appeared on the other side of the screen.  These effects were quite large.

Perhaps most interestingly, the RT spikes were larger for anxious or depressed subjects, especially if the threat word was specifically related to either anxiety or depression.

What Effects Of Attentional Bias Should Such Individuals Be Aware Of?

It is obvious that such effects could impair traders on a trading floor who are making rapid trade decisions themselves.  Information near their field of vision which is threatening — such as a negative Bloomberg headline — could grab the trader’s attention and cause a delay in response time even if it is unrelated to the trade under consideration at the time.

While this is a real issue, I want to consider non-professional traders as well. In general, day-trading is best avoided as 85% of day traders lose money.  (Day-trading is popular among people new to investing.  It is called that because the aim is to minimise risk by not holding any positions over-night.  However, the necessarily short-term nature of this approach means that one can really only benefit from ‘noise’ in stock movements and there is no way to rationally forecast noise.  Relying on luck is even worse in markets than elsewhere because the punishment is swift.) It is better to be a buy-and-hold investor.  What effects of Attentional Bias should such individuals be aware of?

If one is episodically depressed or anxious, then these are not times to be trading.  Negative mood-congruent information will grab attentional resources and make traders much more likely to exit positions.  This may or may not be the right decision to make; what is clear is that such a decision should be made rationally and with a fair and open consideration of the relevant data.  Often this will not be what everyone else is doing, so my approach lends itself naturally to a contrarian investment stance.  There are other good reasons to be a contrarian investor, including that it fits with a long-term approach — so it is not something much engaged in by day-traders.

If someone is permanently depressed or anxious, then treatment should be sought and one should abstain from trading until an improvement is seen.  If no such improvement can be achieved, then I am sympathetic, but I would suggest hiring financial advisers in that circumstance.  It would be one thing less to be concerned about and would likely have more optimal outcomes, despite the extra fees involved.

I discuss in much more detail the important effects in financial markets of Cognitive Biases like Attentional Bias in my new book:

https://www.routledge.com/The-Psychology-of-Successful-Trading-Behavioral-Strategies-for-Profitability/Short/p/book/9781138096288

Email me at shorttim1@gmail.com:

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83% of Millennials Regret How They Handle Their Finances: Why?

Hyperbolic discounting explains why we fail to plan early enough, which is the most common financial regret among Americans

It is reported that 71% of Americans express regret about their ability to handle their finances; the percentage rises to 83% among Millennials.  The most common regret, expressed by 48%, is failure to plan early enough.  Why does this happen?  I will explain it using an element of our psychology called Hyperbolic Discounting.  This is one of 150+ different sorts of Cognitive Bias.  In my new book, I discuss the most important Cognitive Biases and how they will affect your investment performance (see link below).

So what is Hyperbolic Discounting and how does it explain our failure to plan early enough?

As with many Cognitive Biases, they have a kernel of value within them.  This has to be true because otherwise we would not have them.  They can be seen as “quick and dirty” heuristics which in most everyday situations are good enough to allow us to get by.  If they are mostly right and avoid any scenarios of catastrophic error, then they probably do enough to pay their way in our mental architecture.

As an example, think of the widespread fear of snakes.  Evolution could have aimed to give us only a fear of venomous snakes, but that would have been difficult to achieve and would have involved a risk of missing some snakes that could kill us.  Better than this is to make people afraid of all snakes.  The cost of that is that people will sometimes run away from some snakes that are harmless.  But that’s fine.  That cost is greatly outweighed by the benefits of avoiding the venomous snakes.

Hyperbolic Discounting is one of these sorts of mostly useful bias.  It is founded on something like the common and accurate idea that “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”  In other words, something I have now is more valuable than something of equal value that I will have in a year from now.

This then raises the question of how to compare the present value of an item I now own and the present value of something I will own a year from now.  This means applying a discount to the future item to account for the delay between now and when I will own it.  In a world of low interest rates, it is easy to forget this.  But when they return to 5% a year, it will be a lot more clear that $100 now is worth 5% more than $100 in a year from now. Because I could save the $100 now and it would be worth $105 in a year from now.

Turning this around, I can work out what the present value of the future $100 by discounting  it.  This means multiplying it by (100/105).  This comes to $95.24.  (You can check this by adding 5% to it and getting back to $100.)

So 5% is the Discount Rate here.  This is how you should discount a future certain $100 by under circumstances where the risk means that is appropriate.  Now we come to the problem with Hyperbolic Discounting.  It seems that our default discount rates are set way too high.  We set far too much store by what we have in our hands now.  This is also perhaps reflected in the way we are prepared to smoke and not go to the gym today.  Those things are easy to do and carry only minor immediate costs. Smoking of course carries an infinite cost at some point in the future because it will kill you.  It is only through Hyperbolic Discounting that anyone can manage to smoke. Similarly, not going to the gym will kill you.  But not today.

These and many other Cognitive Biases are who we are and explain much of our decision making.  The approach I take in the book is to describe some of the financially significant ones and then explain how they play out in financial markets.  Thus, by reading the book, you can obtain two key benefits.  Firstly, you can look out for biases like Hyperbolic Discounting in your own thinking and correct for them.  Secondly, and even more valuable, you can expect them in other market participants and trade accordingly.

https://www.routledge.com/The-Psychology-of-Successful-Trading-Behavioral-Strategies-for-Profitability/Short/p/book/9781138096288

If you want to discuss these and other concepts mentioned in the book, or for more information about the book, you can Send Mail

Investing Like Geoffrey Boycott

Investors are very bad at forecasting political events.  This is well-known to me after many years of trying.  It is discussed in a good recent article in The Economist:

https://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21726084-wishful-thinking-may-lead-them-astray-investors-are-not-great-predicting

For example, they — and I include myself in this — were wrong about all of the following events.

  • The election of Trump
  • The effects that election would have on markets
  • Whether Trump would pass any legislation
  • The Brexit Referendum
  • The subsequent UK General Election

Interestingly, many non-experts were “right” about these events.  I put “right” in quotation marks because I think that The Economist is right to say that wishful thinking is partly what got people to their forecasts, rather than pure rational analysis.  This is an example of what Kunda(1990) calls motivated reasoning.  In other words, it is a psychological bias operative in financial markets.  In my new book:

https://www.routledge.com/The-Psychology-of-Successful-Trading-Behavioral-Strategies-for-Profitability/Short/p/book/9781138096288

— I argue that understanding the wide array of psychological biases active in oneself and other market participants is crucial to driving financial performance.

Now we come to Geoffrey Boycott.  I will briefly explain cricket to the extent we need to know about it here.  It is somewhat like baseball.  You want to score without getting out.  The parallel with financial markets is that you want to make money without “getting out” — which I interpret as meaning you take a loss so large that you abandon markets.

Now, Boycott was famous for patience.  He would score freely when opportunity presented itself, but otherwise he would just make sure he didn’t get out.  In the jargon, he “occupied the crease.”  This meant he might be there all day.  The key point is this: if you stay there long enough, the runs will come.  Similarly, in financial markets, if you stay the course, the profits will come.

So I did not see Brexit.  But I was invested in US equities at the time.  So I got the overnight 15% boost from sterling depreciation.  You might call that luck.  I call it occupying the crease.

PFI: The Real Problem with “Bringing the Contracts In-House” Will be the Bonds

Today, a pledge was announced at the Labour Party conference that PFI contracts would be reviewed and if necessary, brought back in-house.  This is reported here:

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/sep/25/john-mcdonnell-labour-would-bring-pfi-contracts-back-in-house

It is apparent that private investors who have put money into PFI schemes will need to be compensated.  This is acknowledged by a spokesman saying “a future Labour government would compensate shareholders in PFI companies by swapping their shares for government bonds.”  That might well be acceptable, though equity holders may not be at all happy about being placed in a different part of the capital structure with a completely different risk/reward structure and also having their exposure changed to a different entity.  This however will be acceptable providing they are given enough government bonds.  I am not sure how popular a “stuff their mouths with gold” policy to ensure silence (and no lawsuits) will be but we will see.  The real problem however lies elsewhere.

The way PFI works is that the government or an NHS trust signs a contract with a private sector entity, often a consortium the members of which will include prominently construction and financial firms.  The contract, very basically, will say “you agree that we will have a usable hospital between three and thirty years from now” and “we agree to pay you cash amounts for the same period.”  This removes risk from the government because it no longer has to build the hospital — which incidentally it probably cannot afford to do in any case — and any other interruptions to service during the lifetime of the contract.  This by the way is why it is not an objection to PFI that it costs more: it should cost more because the government has avoided a great deal of risk.  We know how prone government expenditure is to going over-budget: with PFI that risk is passed to the private sector.

The private sector consortium now has a good chance of receiving government cashflows for 30 years, providing it can build the hospital without problems.  These cashflows are excellent for backing bonds: or in the jargon, they are good candidates for securitisation.  Because they are such good candidates, almost all of them will have been.  One reason why they are so good is that there is very strong demand for such long bonds — from everywhere in these low rate times — but especially from pension funds.  Naturally they want long bonds because they have long liabilities.

Here’s the problem.  These investors are very focused on Repayment Risk.  This is the risk that you give them their money back before they were expecting it.  This sounds like good news for the investors, but it isn’t because the pension fund was hoping to get paid interest for 30 years at a rate fixed today and now you have given them their money back they won’t get that.  This is especially painful for them if rates have declined in the meantime.  The current ultra-low rates environment just underlines this.  Imagine 10 years ago you bought a bond paying you 6% a year for 30 years and now they give it you back and say “go ahead and find another bond that pays you that much…”

Because investors hate this so much, they insist on what is known as a Spens clause.  This basically says that if you repay early, you have to roll up the remaining excess interest payments for the remaining life of the bond and hand that over now.  This will be unimaginably expensive because the excess interest will be calculated primarily from the original rate paid by the bonds and the general rate available.  That difference will be huge in a lot of cases because rates generally are so low.  So you will have to roll up a huge difference for maybe 20 years.

Conceivably the government could legislate to take out the Spens clauses.  But that would mean government had intervened radically in contracts agreed between consenting experts in full possession of their faculties…and would destroy the reputation of the City as a secure global marketplace.  We don’t need that ahead of Brexit.  In any case, it would also kill most of the pension funds.  Many of those are foreign, so even if the government were able to lean on the local ones, they would still pick up some fearsome litigation.

I spent almost a decade on the fixed income trading floor of various investment banks.  I concluded that psychological factors were extremely important in driving market events. I am just about to publish a book on this topic.  You can learn more at the link below.

https://www.routledge.com/The-Psychology-of-Successful-Trading-Behavioural-Strategies-for-Profitability/Short/p/book/9781138096288