Understandingbasic psychology is one of the most important but alsomost neglected tasks for investors.Of course, everyone realises that they need to analyse the investments they are considering buying.But many traders do not realise that winning in investment is also about successfully predicting what other market players will do.And that is a psychological task.
Most of the advice on the internet is not really psychology.It is quasi-psychology.You might get famous traders telling you things like “I always played tennis in the morning before my best trades to make sure I felt good.”This is useless.By all means, study what these guys do to get insights into how they analyse opportunities and maybe any tricks they have for bouncing back from a loss.But famous traders don’t have any specific training in psychology so if you are specifically wanting to improve your own trading psychology, adopting their tips (such as the tennis one above)won’t really help you in achieving that goal.
Alternatively, there are some actual psychologists who write on the topic and are experts in the field of psychology.But be careful about their specialisms.Someone who is a clinical psychologist may be an expertin schizophrenia but not necessarily other aspects of human psychology. And of course the main thing is that these expertsdo not have any serious trading experience, so they also can’t help you improve your trading psychology.
To identify the right sort of person, you need to ask two questions: does this person have significant trading experience and are they qualified in a related field?I am one of these people.
To try to convince you of this, I will outline my ideas on how to optimise your trading psychology.The first thing to know about is that we have a lot of cognitive biases —mental shortcuts that are often useful when we want a quick and dirty answer and often very unhelpful when we are trying to get something right.One example is Confirmation Bias, where people look only for evidence that supports what they already believe.There have been manyrobust psychology experiments published,that show time and time again that we do this often and consistently.
The first thing to note here is that if you use this bias when making your own trading decisions, you will make bad decisions.Every time!So you will definitely not be optimising your trading psychology.But here’s the key point: everyone else in the markets will be doing it too.
So what does that mean?It means you need to know about Confirmation Bias and think about it in a market context.Look out for it in yourself and be careful.Expect it in other market players and trade accordingly.
That’s how you stand the best chance of optimising your trading psychology.
People often ask what the common stock market terminology of bullish or bearish means.While these have standard meanings in normal speech — bullish being positive or optimistic, and bearish being the opposite — at least the term “bear market” has a precise technical definition in the arena of stocks.I will explain this here.
The formal definition of a bear market is a market that has declined 20%.
The first item to clear up on the way to understanding the definition is “what do we mean by a market?”Normally people will be talking about a particular stock market index, such as for example the Dow Jones Industrial Average (“DJIA”), the S&P 500 or the Nikkei-225 (“N-225”).So now we want to know what a stock market index is.
Individual shares go up and down all the time.One cannot say what is happening in more broad terms to “the market” by looking at single shares because of this volatility.So instead, one looks at a basket of shares.That is what an index is: a basket of shares listed in a specific location.There are thousand of these, and they can be selected in many different ways.
To illustrate this, the DJIA is a basket of 30 major US shares that are selected so that they represent a good spread of major US stocks in different sectors such as computers, aircraft manufacture and banking.The S&P 500 is a broader basket of shares issued by the 500 largest public companies listed in the US.The N-225 is somewhat different as it is made up of the 225 largest stocks listed in Tokyo.It is price weighted, meaning that more expensive stocks will be more heavily influential in the movement of the index.
So, put simply, if all of the component stocks in the DJIA go down 20% in a period, the whole index will also go down 20% over that time.Since this index and the others are a broader measure of market sentiment than any single stock, if the DJIA goes down 20% in a period, we can say that it was a bearish episode for the market.Since that is an approximate measure of the health of blue chip US equities, one would also be justified in saying that that period was a bearish period more generally for major US companies.
The DJIA has been published since 1896.The graph looks like a long uptrend punctuated by occasional bear markets.You can see this below.
People tend to talk less about the technical definition of a bull market — they will often use it more colloquially to just mean “stocks are going up.”But if one wanted to be precise, it would just be the opposite of a bear market.It would mean that a particular index had increased by 20% from a trough.
I recently discussed (in Investment Styles) the two major different styles of investing: value and momentum. One difficulty with following a value approach is the difficulty in measuring value, since much of it these days is tied up in intangible assets. I will suggest here that, counter-intuitively, buying bank stocks is the solution to this problem.
The value approach to investing is simple to understand, though perhaps a little harder to implement. The basic idea is that you buy things when they are cheap. Finding cheap assets would classically rely on looking at concepts like “book value,” which is just the accounting value of everything owned by the firm in which you are thinking of investing.
In previous decades, book value would have been simple to calculate: you could just look at the published accounts and examine how much the accountants said each asset was worth. A company making cars, say, would own a lot of items like factories, car parts, machinery and land. You could look at all of those items that you could walk up to and touch, and add up all the values, and that’s it: you have calculated book value. If you can buy the stock for less than book value per stock, you have made a good investment. If the company sold all of its assets, and turned that book value into actual cash, each shareholder would get more than book value. That’s why value investing is a good idea, and why you should try to buy stocks at less than book value.
This simple approach is more difficult in modern times, because IP — Intellectual Property — is much more important than it used to be. IP is anything the company owns which is valuable but that you can’t touch. It could be a suite of software, the value of a brand, or
simply the know-how involved in producing the products or services that the company produces. To illustrate the scale of this IP problem for value investors, consider the following estimate. Ocean Tomo, an investment bank, reckoned that the proportion of the value of S&P500 companies which was tied up in IP increased from 17% in 1975 to a huge 84% in 2015. So it is clear that there is a very serious problem in adopting a value investment approach these days, and that’s unfortunate because in my opinion, it is the only approach that works.
So what should investors do about this? I think they should look at bank stocks. This will seem dramatically strange at first sight, because banks own hardly anything at all that is tangible. However, we already saw above that this is true for all companies now, so it can’t be avoided. The key point though is this: there is a well-determined market value for everything owned by a bank.
If you look at the balance sheet for Deutsche Bank, for example, you will see a very large number of items. They will all have market values though. That will be true of shares, bonds, interest rate swaps, credit default swaps, loans to corporates, futures and options, office buildings, warrants, cash in various currencies and any of the other myriad financial assets. There will also be a certain amount of brand value but I think that will be fairly low in the mix. So basically everything owned by Deutsche Bank could be turned into cash, and a known amount of cash, quite quickly.
Banks typically traded at 2.0x book value before the crisis. The rule of thumb for value investors in the sector was “buy at 1.0x book value, sell at 2.0.” Something like this is still true: you can buy Deutsche Bank at 0.3x book value and I think you should. That’s the right approach for value investors today.
There are two major investment styles which take completely different approaches.They are value investing and momentum investing.The former, also known as contrarianism, seeks to find cheap assets to buy.It is called contrarianism because often it involves looking for assets which are cheap because no one likes them.Momentum investing is simpler.This simply observes that often, assets that have been performing well continue to do so.So investors adopting this style just look for assets which have gone up and hope that they will continue to do so.
I favour value investing.One reason for this is because the problem with momentum investing is that assets which have done well continue to so until they don’t.There is no way to tell when something which has gone up will stop doing so.And we definitely know that nothing will appreciate forever!
The difficulty with value investing is knowing when an asset is cheap.In the early days of investing, the concept of book value was very useful.This is simply the accounting value.If a company owns a factory and some machinery, the book value will be close to the value for which the factory and the machines could be sold. If you can buy a share, or a slice of the company, for less than the book value per share, you should.
Book value is still very useful on many occasions.But modern companies are very complicated, and often much of what they do cannot be valued simply.A lot of their worth might be tied up in software, for example, which is harder to value than a building.Or they might own a lot of IPR — intellectual property which again, is intangible and hard to value.But the effort is worth it.Finding a cheap company to buy is one of the best ways to trade successfully.
I have written a lot about the importance of psychological factors in investing.It is absolutely crucial that you understand these, for two reasons.Knowing about your own psychology will help you understand and improve your decision-making processes. It will be especially valuable to know when cognitive biases are likely to cause you to make errors in evaluating investments.But just as important is knowing how other investors will think — after all, they have the same psychology as you do!And knowing what other investors are likely to think of an asset is the key.Because you want to find an asset which is not just cheap — but unjustifiably so.Then you can expect it to go up sustainably.
Yesterday, the Shadow Chancellor gave a speech outside the Bank Of England on the tenth anniversary of the Lehman collapse. I will argue that his remarks do not display a good understanding of how The City works. All quotations below are from his speech.
“The key lesson is this: never let the finance sector become the masters of the economy when they should be the servants of the economy” *
This is a misconception. Finance is never either the master or the servant of the economy so it would be impossible to change it’s status in this regard. The way corporate finance works is not that different to getting a mortgage to buy a house. This is true in several ways. Firstly, if you never buy a house, you never need the finance and you never talk to a bank. That’s up to you. So that doesn’t look like a master or servant relationship.
The second element of the analogy is that if you get a mortgage, there will be conditions attached. The most important ones will be around debt service and security. Debt service means that if you borrow money, you will have to pay it back and you will have to pay interest on it until you have paid it back. Security means that no one will lend you £1,000,000 to buy a house unless that debt is secured on the house. So if you default on the loan, the bank takes your house. Again, this is just contractual and reasonable and does not mean that the bank is either your servant or your master. It is a contractual counterparty.
Corporate finance is the same. If companies want to borrow, there are conditions they have to satisfy. No one forces them to borrow. If they don’t like the terms, they can just walk away. Or they can access alternative sources of funds, such as bond markets. There are conditions there as well of course. It still doesn’t seem to make much sense to say that companies are “servants” of the bond markets.
Similarly, countries are not required to borrow money in the international bond markets. Norway has a net surplus because it has wisely saved much of its oil income. The UK is currently not running a deficit — amazingly enough, although progress needs to be measure correctly, as I have observed previously https://timlshort.com/2015/01/04/uk-deficit-no-longer-a-problem — but in the past, it has borrowed heavily. The total debt will be £1,840bn as of March 2019. All of that debt also comes with conditions though in that case not very many. You have to pay interest and principal. Again, the choice is yours and, as said, currently the UK is not borrowing any further. No master/servant relationship there.
Reuters also report** that McDonnell said that “ordinary people were still paying the price for the crisis through falling living standards and cuts to public services, and a Labour government would redress the balance.”
There have definitely been falling living standard and cuts to public services. There was definitely also a global financial crisis. But there needs to be some link between the two for McDonnell’s point to stand. The collapse of Lehman cost the UK taxpayer nothing. McDonnell can only mean the bailout of RBS. This definitely cost the UK taxpayer. Arguably, a bank needing to be bailed out is the only reason to care about what they get up to. If they lose a lot of shareholders money, that is no one else’s problem. The only thing worse than bailing out RBS was not bailing it out.
The bailout of RBS amounted to £45bn. The Government spent that amount on buying shares. It still holds a lot. It has made a loss of £4bn on what it has sold so far. It will doubtless make further losses on future sales. However, these amounts are simply trifling when compared to government expenditure. Welfare spending will be £115bn in 2019 alone. So it is not the case that the RBS bailout contributed in any meaningful way to public sector spending cuts.
What did cause that was the government’s income — which is entirely sourced from taxation of the private sector — declining. And what caused that was a global recession. That was quite plausibly caused by the events of 2008 including the subsequent credit crunch.
But how will Labour “redress this balance?” Will it force banks to lend? They are private sector firms. Will it replace them with public sector banks? The record there is not good. Spain had a network of Caixas: local banks run by local worthies such as trade unionists and priests. They were massively corrupt and had to be bailed out having funded a large number of white elephant projects.
Meeting with bankers and asset managers, McDonnell said:
“You’ll get a decent rate of return but we’re not being ripped off anymore. Ripped off by speculation, privatisation, job cuts, exploitation of workers.”***
This is a claim that the government received a bad deal as a result of several activities.
Speculation is betting that an asset’s price will move in a particular way. It is not obvious what the government’s involvement would be in that or why it should care. If you suggest that RBS needed to be bailed out because it had “speculated” on subprime mortgage bonds, you need to explain why it is speculation to invest in Aaa securities.
Privatisation is a source of funds for the government. There no obvious way for it to be ripped off by doing that, unless it sells an asset for a low price. Which again, no one forces it to do. Perhaps McDonnell means PFI. That is also excellent value for money if the contracts are drafted correctly.
Job cuts: I have no idea what McDonnell means here. Obviously I understand what a job cut is, bit what is McDonnell proposing? That the government will regulate firing? That is bizarre and generally results in a lack of hiring because you don’t take people on if you have to keep them forever even if they are incompetent, corrupt or don’t turn up.
Exploitation of workers: so what is that exactly? And why is it not adequately addressed by the current regulations such as employment tribunals?
It does not appear as though any useful answers to the crisis are to be found in McDonnell’s remarks.
I will argue that Proust’s picture of how we get into the minds of other’s is simulationist, thus following the account that I favour rather than the mainstream one.
The term in psychology for the way in which we predict and explain the behaviour of others is “Theory of Mind.” This is, I suggest, something of a placeholder, because it is in fact deeply unclear how we do this. Or even if we get it right. It certainly looks like we do, but that’s just because we confirm our results using the same method. (This is sometimes known as the “dipstick problem” in philosophy. I can’t tell whether my fuel gauge is accurate if I only look at the fuel gauge.)
There are two accounts of Theory of Mind in academic psychology. One is called Theory Theory. This is the claim that we have a theory of other people that we learn when young. This is the mainstream account. The other account, which I support, is called Simulation Theory:
Simulation Theory suggests that instead of using a theory of others, what we do when we predict and explain their behaviour is to simulate them. Metaphorically, we place ourselves in what we think is their position with the information and desires we thing they have, and then work out what we would do.
Anyone who has read Proust knows that he has an exceptionally deep and unusual set of insights into our psychology. His insights are not paralleled elsewhere in my view, with the possible exception of Henry James. For this reason, it is unsurprising to me that he also favours Simulation Theory. Moreover, Proust even seems to suggest the defence of Simulation Theory using cognitive biases which I have proposed.*
There are two key quotations I will use to back up this claim.** The character Swann is discussing “fellow-feeling,” and remarks to himself as below:
“he could not, in the last resort, answer for any but men whose natures were analogous to his own, as was, so far as the heart went, that of M. de Charlus. The mere thought of causing Swann so much distress would have been revolting to him. But with a man who was insensible, of another order of humanity, as was the Prince des Laumes, how was one to foresee the actions to which he might be led by the promptings of a different nature?”
This tells us that Swann has observed that it is easier for him to predict or explain the behaviour of others when those others are similar to him. In this particular case, Swann is wondering which of his friends might have sent him a distressing anonymous letter. Swann believes that Charlus is similar to Swann himself, that Swann himself would not have sent such a letter, and therefore Swann concludes that Charlus did not send the letter.
On the other hand, Swann believes that des Laumes is a very different individual, who is “insensible.” (I suspect that a more modern translation would use “insensitive” here.). Note that Swann, in a very simulationist vein, does not say “des Laumes is insensitive, so he might have sent the letter.” Instead, he says “des Laumes is insensitive, so I cannot tell what he would do.”
This is a very simulationist line. It says, in effect, that Swann is unable, he believes, to simulate des Laumes, because des Laumes is very different to Swann. Note this is not consistent with the mainstream Theory Theory view. There is no reason why Swann, an intelligent and perceptive man, could not have a good theory of insensitive behaviour. There is by contrast every reason why Swann could struggle to simulate insensitive behaviour, lacking as he does the experience “from the inside” of such behaviour.
A further simulationist view is suggested later; someone might be a genius:
“or, although a brilliant psychologist, [not believe] in the infidelity of a mistress or of a friend whose treachery persons far less gifted would have foreseen.”
This is a claim that people may be extremely intelligent and even special gifted in academic psychology but still make Theory of Mind errors in relation to other people not so gifted. Note how uncongenial this is to Theory Theory. Intelligent people who are brilliant psychologists should have an excellent theory of others and so be able to make very good predictions of their behaviour. Simulation Theory, by contrast, will predict exactly what Proust is describing here: brilliant, intelligent (highly moral?) individuals will fail to predict the behaviour of others who do not possess those characteristics. And similarly, more ordinary mortals will be able to simulate much better and thus predict much better when the person to be predicted is more like the person doing the predicting.
The major objection to Simulation Theory is that it does not account for surprising results in social psychology, such as the infamous Stanford prison experiment. Here, people behave amazingly harshly, for no apparent reason. This behaviour is not predicted by anyone. Theory Theorists claim that Simulation Theory cannot explain this, because we should just be able to simulate being a guard in a fake prison and then predict the harsh behaviour.
I provide a response to this objection on behalf of Simulation Theory. I suggest that what is missing from the simulation is a cognitive bias. In the case of the Stanford Prison Experiment, the bias in question I propose is Conformity Bias. Simply put, this is just our tendency to do what we are told. This bias is a lot stronger than we suppose, in comfortable repose.
It is gratifying to find Swann also gesturing in the direction of this Bias Mismatch Defence, as I call it. Swann further observes that he:
“knew quite well as a general truth, that human life is full of contrasts, but in the case of any one human being he imagined all that part of his or her life with which he was not familiar as being identical with the part with which he was.”
This, if Swann is accurate in his self-perception here, is a description of a systematic Theory of Mind error. It is a form of synecdoche, if you like. Swann takes the part of the person he knows and assumes that all of the rest of that person is the same.
I have suggested that one of the biases which can throw off our simulations is the Halo Effect. This means we know one thing about a person or item which has a certain positive or negative perceived value, and we then assume that all of the attributes of the person or item have the same value. For instance, someone who is a good speaker is probably also honest etc. There is of course no strong reason to think this, rationally speaking.
I have discussed the implications of the Halo Effect on predicting behaviour in financial markets previously:
In that case, I called the Bitcoin bubble just before it burst by employing the Halo Effect and positing that it was affecting the judgement of buyers. It is encouraging to see that Swann is also on the same page as me here!
Note that I do not claim to be a Proust expert or even have completed my reading yet! I do not therefore suggest that the above represents a radical new reading of the whole of Proust. I make only the modest claim that in this one paragraph, Proust describes a version of Theory of Mind which is more congenial to simulation than to theory. Since there are only these two developed candidate explanations of Theory of Mind, then that is already interesting. (There is also a hybrid account which employs both simulation and theory, but that is a mess in my view and there is no evidence of for any theory in the above quotation and therefore no evidence for a hybrid account.)
*”IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME – Complete 7 Book Collection (Modern Classics Series): The Masterpiece of 20th Century Literature (Swann’s Way, Within a Budding … The Sweet Cheat Gone & Time Regained)” by Marcel Proust, C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Stephen Hudson).
**It might be argued that this view is not that favoured by Proust himself but by Swann, who is a character created by Swann. I will not pursue this sort of Plato/Socrates point, but merely observe that it is at the very least true that Proust considers the position worth discussing. Moreover, I think it is very clear that Swann is rather to be considered an intelligent, discerning individual, if perhaps somewhat afflicted by propensities for self-deception, and so the fact that this view is at least that of Swann is sufficient to make it interesting. (I am informed by someone who knows Proust better than me that I am likely to revise my view of Swann in a negative direction as my reading progresses.)
When we have seen something often, we are more likely to believe it is true. This will weaken the accuracy of decision-making in financial markets and elsewhere
The Illusory Truth Effect is a variant of how we inaccurately use our feelings to make decisions. We use at least two methods to decide on the truth of a claim or the correctness of new information. The first method is somewhat allied to one of the philosophical account of knowledge: coherentism. We assess the claim based on whether it is consistent with what we think we already know. The second method is to consider how we feel about the claim or purported new information.
Both approaches have drawbacks. The first method, while probably the best available, can lead people into multiple errors. If you already believe something false, you are more likely to believe further false claims which are allied to the first false claim. We see many pernicious illustrations of this; for example, in political polarisation and various forms of prejudice.
The second approach is more damaging. In fact, deciding whether something is true or not based on how we feel about it looks so odd that you might wonder whether it can possibly be the case that this happens. This is another example of a puzzling psychological bias which in fact it makes sense for us to exhibit because, on average, it will produce an answer which is “good enough.”
One thing we don’t like is work. If we have seen a claim a lot before, we don’t need to work too hard to decide whether it is true again. (This can also be seen as a processing fluency effect.) We are comfortable with the claim or the apparent information. I don’t need to think about the route to walk to the gym because I have done it a lot before and it always worked. This familiarity effect or ease of processing effect is fine in relation to the route to the gym. And there are going to be a lot of daily questions like that where it would be inefficient to reevaluate them.
This is all fine. However, it turns out that we also do this with false claims which we have seen often. That of course is going to be a huge problem. The Illusory Truth Effect is also known as the Reiteration Effect for this reason. Basically, if I tell you something which is false a lot of times, you are likely to get comfortable with it and more likely to believe it.
This will have frequent damaging effects in financial markets. For example, in the case of the Bitcoin bubble, which I forecast approximately three days before the peak:
— there are I think some causal factors deriving from the Illusory Truth Effect, though as I discuss there, there are many other psychological biases and errors at work in the bitcoin bubble.
In particular, what we saw in the case of the Bitcoin bubble was the cult-like nature of the phenomenon. Proponents of the cryptocurrency repeated hundred of times the same false claims like “it can only go up;” “Bill Gates is enthusiastic about it;” or “all we have to do is HODL (sic) and everything will be fine.” Cult members believed all of this partly because they had heard it all many times and so they became familiar with it.
Turning to the professional sphere, we can expect that the Illusory Truth Effect will play a part in any bubble involving more than just the inexperienced investors who became infected in the Bitcoin epidemic. DotCom caught a lot of people (including myself, because I was young and inexperienced.). We heard many times that anything involving the internet was going to be a huge success. So we started to believe it.
There are many features of markets that are true until they aren’t. Try to avoid believing something merely because you have heard it a lot. Look for evidence.