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.
Psychologists study psychological capacities – what we the call “the mind.” One of the distinctive psychological capacities of human beings is the ability to explain and predict the behaviour and mental states of other humans. Psychologists call this ability “Theory of Mind”. We all have “Theory of Mind” – but how does it work? That is, by what method or mechanism do we explain and predict other people’s behaviour?
People are very good at predicting and explaining each other’s behaviour. We are so good at it, that often we do not realise we are doing it. And it is very unclear how we do it. In this post, I will briefly introduce some ideas in psychology about how we do it.
“Theory of Mind” is the label for how we predict and explain the behaviour of others. It was originally called that because the first idea was that we have a theory of other people. On this account, we learn this theory as children, or it is innate — meaning we are born with it. It ought to be something like a theory in that it has some kind of rules in a system. They would say things like “everyone who wants some ice cream will go where they think the ice cream is.”
Subsequently, there was a debate as to whether this was really the right explanation for our Theory of Mind. Alternative accounts emerged. This means that some new terminology was required. The account I have already outlined above, where people use a theory to predict and explain others, became known as Theory Theory. It was, if you like, the theory that using a theory is how we do Theory of Mind! We use rules to predict and explain the actions of others.
The challenger account was called Simulation Theory. This says that people predict and explain others by simulating them. In other words, I predict what you will do in a situation by imagining that I am in that situation and then deciding what I would do. I might think (implicitly probably) “I want some ice cream, where would I go?”
We can see that both methods produce results that look plausible, to begin with. Both of them would account for the way that if I say to you “why did Jimmy go to the ice cream van?,” you don’t have any difficulty coming up with what looks like a good answer. What we don’t know is whether you came up with that answer by using a rule (Theory Theory) or put yourself in Jimmy’s place (Simulation Theory).
The debate continues as to whether Theory Theory or Simulation Theory is correct. The major objection to Simulation Theory was that it could not explain cases of systematic Theory of Mind error. In the Stanford Prison experiment, for example, the participants acted much more harshly than anyone outside the situation predicted. Those objecting to Simulation Theory said that if it was the correct account of Theory of Mind, then we would be able to get the right answer. We would be able to correctly predict the harshness of the participants by imagining that we were there.
I have provided what I think is the only response to this objection. I call it the bias mismatch defence. In it, suggest that if there is a systematic error in Theory of Mind, like the one in the prison experiment, it is because the people in the experiment are acting under a common cognitive bias, and the people outside it are not. They do not simulate the bias, in other words. There could be several reasons why they do not simulate it. They might, for example, have no particular emotional involvement in the situation. After all, being outside prison is much less intense than being in prison!
In this particular case of the prison experiment, I think the bias in question is Conformity Bias. This is the way we all tend to do what we are told, to some extent. But I could use this bias mismatch approach much more widely. It could be used to explain any cases where people systematically fail to predict how experimental participants will react, if those participants can be seen to be exhibiting any cognitive bias. We know about more than 150 of those so far, so there is plenty of opportunity for bias mismatch to arise. This bias mismatch happens a lot I think, and it is why so many results in social psychology are interesting and surprising — and also why so often, we fail to understand others.
There have been claims recently that “collective Narcissism” explains some episodes where people behave in ways that are unexpected viz. elect Trump and vote for Brexit. If Narcissism is interpreted in the formal way that psychiatrists do, this can’t really be true. But, as I will explain, there are ways of constructing the claim such that it reveals some valuable insights.
The major objection to Simulation Theory has been that it cannot explain systematic errors in Theory of Mind. These are seen when people contemplate the infamous Milgram experiment, where everyone apparently gives out electric shocks to strangers, while everyone systematically fails to predict this.
I dealt with this objection in my book by positing “bias mismatch” as the answer. If the person you are simulating exhibits a cognitive bias and you don’t, your simulation will fail. For example, in the case of the Milgram Experiment, the bias you are not simulating is Conformity Bias. This is also known as the Asch Effect, and basically formalises the idea that we all tend to do what we we are told to some extent. This effect is surprisingly strong.
Obviously everyone exhibits Conformity Bias on occasions, but the observers do not exhibit it in the same way the participants in the experiment. in the experiment, the subjects are told very emphatically to proceed with the shocks, the experimenter is in a lab coat, it is the 1960s so a deference culture etc. So the effects of Conformity Bias are very strong. This type and intensity of Conformity Bias is not simulated by the observers and so they are surprised by the actions of the subjects.
Now we come to the Narcissism ideas, which I will situate in the above framework. The claim is that “collective Narcissism” about the greatness of a country causes people to make poor decisions. In the case of the US, they have elected someone who promised to make their country great again. In the case of the UK, they have decided to take huge unwarranted risks with the trade position without any particular upsides in the belief that the UK is better off alone.
The claim cannot really be that substantial numbers of people are actually suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This is because NPD subjects make up around 1% of the general population. This is quite common: many psychiatric disorders have around a 1% prevalence rate. I hypothesise that this is because if it is much less, we cannot see it, and if it is much more, we redefine it as normal!
So 1% of the population is not enough to elect a President or tilt a referendum. However, people can exhibit Narcissistic tendencies. This could be a much larger element of the population (data are sparse here). In order to look at the plausibility of that, let us consider what Narcissism looks like clinically. To help do that, I will now describe the criteria for a diagnosis of NPD.
Informally, Narcissism could be characterised as excessive self-regard, though it is perhaps unclear how one would characterise such excess and subjects can often be extremely successful high-status individuals. So in a sense, the high self-regard can be merited.
Formally, four criteria must be satisfied in order for a subject to receive a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. These are: impairments in self-functioning, impairments in interpersonal functioning, impairments in intimacy and antagonism. Each of the criteria can be exhibited in either of two ways.
Impairments in self functioning can be exhibited by excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem; or goal-setting may be based excessively on the aim of obtaining approval from others.
Impairments in interpersonal functioning may be exhibited either by impaired empathy or by impaired intimacy. Empathy is defined as the ability to recognise or identify with the feelings and needs of others or a tendency to underestimate one’s own effect on others.
Impaired intimacy is seen if relationships are largely superficial and exist to mostly serve the ends of the subject.
Finally, a diagnosis also requires antagonism, which may be characterised either as grandiosity, meaning feelings of entitlement or self-centredness, or attention-seeking behaviour.
So here we see how everything fits together. I think we can agree that many more people than 1% of the population could exhibit tendencies like the above. I also think we can regard Narcissistic tendencies, which would look like the above but fall short of being fully diagnosable, as a cognitive bias. This could be much more widely prevalent in the population than the number of diagnosable subjects. If you simulate such people and you do not yourself have the same Narcissistic tendencies about the same issues, you will get it wrong. So we see how the claims that Narcissistic tendencies can explain our failure to predict the explanation of Trump and Brexit, despite abundant data pointing that way, can be because of our failure to account for something like collective Narcissism in others.
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 has an interesting and modern perspective on the role and function of memory, based on an early perspective — by which I mean just the first two books.
Midway in book two, the “narrator” is surprised and delighted to receive a letter from Gilberte. (I place the word “narrator” in scare quotes because it is already clear to the reader that the person writing is doing so with a much more sophisticated perspective than would be available to a child or adolescent.) This occurs just before the introduction of the name Albertine; a name one is already certain will be of the highest significance.
One immediate observation is that both the names Gilberte and Albertine appear to an English speaker to be feminised versions of male names (but this may just be an artefact of time in that those were common at the time). More importantly, the name of Albertine is suggested in the way that Gilberte’s signature apparently begins with a G which looks like an A and the l is undotted; together with the way the final e is obscured in a “flourish” such that we could imagine it to be “–ine.”
This cannot be understood by the reader on first pass at least since the name Albertine has not yet at that stage been introduced — though it is about to be — which makes it seem to be something like a “shadow of the future…”
This all seems to tie in with the way “narrator” writes in an impossibly sophisticated way for a child and how all of the relations towards women seem to be similarly obsessive — it looks now as though either Swann relates to Odette in the same way as “narrator” does to Gilberte (and one awaits the arrival of Albertine with interest). Or, more plausibly, as though “narrator” is mapping his later more subtle appreciations on to others or finally — and we are presumably supposed to be talking about memory in In Remembrance of Times Past — to the idea that memory does not record events but is a later fabrication of them with heavy embeddings of later intellect/desire/perceptions which would be a very modern approach.
It is still common to see memory on a photography model: a more-or-less faithful record of actual events. Modern psychology sees it much more along the lines of a later heavily-biased reconstruction. Philosophers have taken varied views; Nietzsche has a particularly modern approach. I discuss this and outline some of the contrasting philosophical views in my thesis: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1421265/
Returning to my “shadow of the future” remark above, we could say — if Albertine turns out to be yet another obsessive love, and perhaps the paradigm case — that “narrator” has painted aspects of that episode on to all previous memories of love affairs including the initial one he apparently had with Gilberte, and even his perceptions/recollections of the one that Swann “must have had” with Odette. That would explain Swann’s readiness to destroy his own social position and consort with the most mediocre people in order to be with her.
Naturally, all of this remains subject to revision depending on subsequent developments, but I think it is already clear that Proust is working with extremely subtle and sophisticated conceptions of memory and identity.
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.)