In Financial Markets, Relying on the “Wisdom of Crowds” Can Be Very Risky

We all tend to do what everyone else does. This saves time and effort on many occasions, but it can cost you a lot of money in financial markets

We all tend to do what everyone else does, even when we can see that everyone else is wrong.  In financial markets, this can lead to bubbles and herd behaviour.  It is important to be aware of this tendency within our psychology, so you can at appropriate times avoid joining in the bubbles.  It is important to do this because you will lose a lot of money if you participate or, once in, fail to exit before everyone else does.

In this post, I will briefly outline the relevant psychology so you can both look for the effects in your own thinking and expect those same effects in other market participants.  This will improve your trading.  I discuss this bias and many others in a financial markets context in my new book (see link below).

ask blackboard chalk board chalkboard
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Conformity Bias is also known in the literature as the Asch Effect, after the pioneer experimenter.  Asch obtained really surprising results, which will show you how strong this effect is.  He had a naive member of the public sit in a room in front of a blackboard with four other people.  The member of the public thought that the other four people were also naive members of the public, but in reality they were actors who were going to behave in a specific way suggested by Asch.

A line of a certain length was drawn on the left side blackboard.  Some other reference lines of different lengths were drawn on the right hand side.  One of them was clearly the same length as the reference line and all of the rest were clearly much shorter or much longer.  Asch then had the people say which of the test lines on the right was the same length as the reference line.

If the naive member of the public went last and heard all of the actors give a wrong answer, he tended to go along with them even though the answer was obviously and clearly wrong.  Amazingly, Asch found that most people gave an obviously wrong answer some of the time and also that some people gave wrong answers most of the time.

This is how strong Conformity Bias is: it works even when the answer is obvious.  Imagine how much more dangerous it is in financial markets where the answers are much less clear cut and much ambiguous and conflicting data must be weighed.

three round silver and gold colored coins
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I think this is one factor behind a lot of famous bubbles in financial history. Right now, it looks to me as though the cryptocurrencies, most notably Bitcoin, are exhibiting bubble characteristics.  One sign of this is the enthusiasm of a particular football manager, one noted for his lack of financial acumen, for Ethereum.  I do not say this is a scam; I merely suggest that one should look to more fundamental underpinnings for value than “everyone likes it and it has gone up a lot.”

Avoid Conformity Bias and trade better by trading the other way when you see it happening.

See Also:

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

The Illusory Truth Effect And Financial Markets

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

The Late Evaluation Effect And Financial Markets

Bad Arguments for the Permanence of Bitcoin

I will rebut various elements of a rather poor article arguing that Bitcoin will be around forever.  It might well be — I don’t know — but I do know that this article does not add any light to the topic.  It appeared here:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/15/jp-morgan-ceo-wrong-bitcoin-jamie-dimon

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The random banker bashing in the headline might give you an initial suspicion about who is likely to be right here.

The first rhetorical question the article asks is “Would Jamie Dimon really sack traders who netted a 1,000% return in less than two years? The bank’s shareholders wouldn’t approve”

The answer to this is definitely yes.  Return alone is an inadequate assessment of trader performance.  We must look at risk-adjusted return. A guaranteed 10% return is better than anything lower than a 50% chance of 20%.  If the trader made his 1000% by betting on a single horse, he took an enormous risk to make his 1000%. The shareholders would certainly approve of Dimon sacking such a trader and in fact would demand it.

We then move on to a ‘fake news’ type criticism in which the author attempts to show that Dimon is biased.  He writes “Although JP Morgan was by no means the most leveraged of the banks, it still took bailout money, and, as its CEO, Dimon and bitcoin will inevitably be philosophically opposed.”  So this is a set of claims which don’t stack up.  Firstly, JP was bailed out post-crisis (fine).  Secondly, Bitcoin was invented in response to this crisis (I don’t know, but let’s accept this).  Thirdly, JP must be opposed to everything that happened as a response to the crisis.  Conclusion: JP is opposed to Bitcoin forever.  Premise Three is obviously false.  What can be said to even make it plausible?

The next section of the article accuses Dimon of not understanding Bitcoin because he says it is a fraud.  The author then admits that Bitcoin is in fact extensively used for fraudulent and criminal purposes but it is not itself a fraud.  This is parallel to those arguments against gun control which say that guns don’t kill people, people do.  I will leave that there.

I will close by criticising a remarkable paragraph which packs in a lot of errors and bad

four assorted cryptocurrency coins
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arguments.  The author writes: “Dimon declares that we will use the technology – blockchain technology – but that bitcoin will be shut down. That’s like saying we will use football pitches, but football players will be banned. One comes with the other. In any case, you can’t just shut bitcoin down. It’s a decentralised, distributed network. That’s the whole point of its design. There is no central point of failure.”

This is very strange.  Take the football analogy first.  There are two major problems with it.  As a parallel, it may or may not work.  Assume it works.  Let’s be generous.  There are alternative uses for football pitches.  They have been used as prisons and they were used as holding centres post-Katrina.  Other uses could be imagined.  We could land helicopters on them.  So even if Bitcoin ls like playing football and the blockchain is like a football pitch, we can do other things with football pitches and we could do other things with the blockchain.  Strikingly in fact, this is where much of the excitement exists.  There are many potential extremely useful applications of a distributed ledger technology such as property registers and shareholder transaction records.  These would be interesting because they would be highly transparent and resistant to corruption and bureaucratic sloth.

The second argument in here is equally poor.  The claim is that you can’t shut Bitcoin down because it is decentralised.  What this may actually bring out is that you cannot shut down the servers behind Bitcoin because they are decentralised.  But that isn’t what Dimon says.  He says that “There will be no currency that gets around government controls.” What if governments made Bitcoin possession and use illegal and banned its use in any transactions?  They could do that and then what Dimon has pointed out is true but no-one has to go around shutting down distributed servers.

I conclude that the author has done nothing to show that Dimon is wrong or that Bitcoin is not a bubble and will persist.

See also:

The #Bitcoin Bubble Is Caused By The Halo Effect

The Forthcoming #Bitcoin Crash Will Kill The #Trump Demographic

The #Anecdotal Fallacy And The #Bitcoin Bubble

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