The Picture Superiority Effect And Financial Markets

The Picture Superiority Effect is one of a large number of cognitive biases that affect how we think and act. It is important to know about these biases in the context of financial markets because they can impair our decision making but also inform traders on how other market participants may react

As in previous posts featuring on this blog  ( https://timlshort.com) I will first outline a cognitive bias drawing from the relevant psychological literature and then describe how that plays out in financial markets.  My basic point throughout is that it is critical for market participants to know about these unavoidable biases for two reasons.  Firstly, knowing about them is the first step to being able to recognise when they are operative and assessing whether they have resulted in an optimal decision, with specific relevance here to trading decisions.  Secondly, since no-one is free of these biases, traders can expect that other market players will be influenced by them and trade accordingly.

The Picture Superiority Effect is relatively straightforward.  What psychologists have found is that people find it easier to remember images than words.  There are different opinions in the literature as to why this might be.  In my view, the effect is likely to be explained by our preference for the vivid and concrete over the dull and abstract; but in fact, the causation is not that important for our purposes here.  We just need to know that everyone remembers imagery more than text.  This is probably no surprise; in particular in the age of social media, as pictures are shared more widely on social media than text (and so we might surmise that there is also a Video Superiority Effect which is even stronger).

There is some discussion as to how age interacts with the Picture Superiority Effect.  Early researchers found that younger people recalled more pictures than words while older subjects did not, suggesting that the Picture Superiority Effect exists only in younger people.  More recent work, however, appears to find the exact opposite.  Given the general improvement in experimental methodologies that occurs over time and the parallel increase in knowledge, I would say that the more recent studies are more likely to be correct.  But that observation remains subject to further confirmation/disconfirmation.

As a result, there have been some suggestions that what is happening is that images work as a compensation mechanism for older adults who are experiencing memory deficits.  So the overall story may be that younger people are prone to the Picture Superiority Effect, middle age adults are less prone to it, and then older people embrace the effect for compensation purposes.  This would mean something like older people are deliberately relying more on pictures to assist them in remembering things.  There is also advice from the intelligence community (!) to the effect that the way to remember a lot of items without writing them down is to modify a visual memory of a very familiar location, such as one’s home, and add to it strange and striking items which represent the data one wishes to remember.

All of this means that everyone who is involved in financial markets can expect that the Picture Superiority Effect will play a role in their thinking to a differing extent at various life stages.  How would this work?

This type of point — how do cognitive biases affect our performance in financial markets —  is one I discuss at length in my book:

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

One example I give there is related to imagery, although I am actually discussing a different cognitive bias called the Availability Heuristic.  The example is the photos and video with which we are all familiar of people who had been fired from Lehman Bros. after it collapsed in the crisis.  These pictures and ones like them are extremely easy to remember.  In fact, they are difficult to forget.  This sort of thing might make you unreasonably averse to buying bank shares.  Similarly, pictures of Elon Musk looking depressed might make you avoid TSLA stock.  There may or may not be good reasons for avoiding such stocks (my view is the opposite at present) — but what is 100% clear is that if you read a story about banks or TSLA and only recall a picture of a fired banker or a sad Elon Musk, you have not retained very much which is useful in terms of making a market decision.  Even if you give equal weight to the picture and the words, you are probably still weighting the evidential value of the total information value available to you wrongly.

It is probably wise to set aside the limited information value represented by imagery and focus on the data — which may of course be presented graphically without being just a photo.  If you want to discuss these and other concepts mentioned in the book, or for more information about the book, you can Send Mail

Negativity Bias And Financial Markets

Negativity Bias is one of the powerful and ineradicable aspects of human psychology, which has important effects on the performance of stock market investors

Negativity Bias is perhaps the most expensive and dangerous item in our psychological repertoire insofar as it impacts on our performance in financial markets.  In this post, I will outline the bias and then discuss how its effects play out in markets.

Negativity Bias is reflected in the finding that negative events affect us much more strongly than positive ones.  I should immediately distinguish this effect from the bias I was discussing in my previous post (https://timlshort.com/2017/11/05/attentional-bias-and-financial-markets/)  There, I discussed the subset of Attentional Biases that operate in people who are depressed or anxious, such that they pay more attention to mood congruent information.  Negativity Bias differs from that in that it affects everyone, irrespective of mood and psychiatric diagnosis.  Some forms of Attentional Bias do that as well, but in the previous post I considered only mood-related variants thereof.

The bias can be seen as a mis-calibration, like many of our cognitive biases.  There is a “right-size” for the amount of impact that an event should have on us which is related to the “intensity” of that event.  Obviously, intensity is rather a slippery concept here, but we can give some meaning to it with illustrations.  Two negative events of different intensities would be stubbing one’s toe and breaking an arm.  Two positive events with differing intensities would be receiving a birthday card or falling in love.

So without Negativity Bias — and with what we might regard as a purely rational response to events — there would be a link between the intensity of an event and its impact upon us.  There would not be a link between whether the event  was positive or negative and the size of the impact of the event on us.  This does not mean that it is strange that we react negatively to negative events and positively to positive events (in fact, it would be very strange were this not so!).  What it means is that it is odd that we react more strongly to negative events than we do to positive events of the same intensity.

This was measured by experimental social psychologists in financial terms using sums of money.  It was found that the mis-calibration is very strong: the factor is about 2.5.  In other words, we react 2.5x as strongly to losing $10 as we do to gaining $10.  In other other words, losing something is much, much worse than gaining the same amount.

The Negativity Bias then will have huge impacts on our risk aversion, and that, it is well known, is a key driver of performance in financial markets.  Many people perform extremely badly as a result of excess risk aversion.  In the current environment, it is unwise to be holding substantial amounts of cash.  People should have some emergency funds of course.  But if CPI is running at 3% and interest rates paid by the banks are more like 1%, then anyone holding cash in the bank is basically prepared to pay 2% a year in order to avoid any risk, as they see it.

As I see it, paying to avoid risk like this is just concretising the risk.  You don’t gain: you just get the loss in a form you can pretend doesn’t exist.  It would be much better — and in fact less risky understood correctly — to invest in something.  There is an enormous spectrum of assets and geographies out there from equities in the US, Japan, Emerging Markets and Frontier Markets to bonds issues by governments, investment grade corporates and junk corporates.  There are thousands of ETFs available offering the widest imaginable range of exposures.  Overcome your Negativity Bias and pick one.

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

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

 

 

 

Women Are Better Traders Than Men

Women are better traders than men because they are less over-confident. It is also possible that they benefit from superior abilities to predict and explain the behaviour of others.

There is a good amount of evidence that female non-professional traders outperform male non-professional traders.  I discuss this at greater length in the final chapter of my new book:

The Psychology Of Successful Trading

This evidence is not widely discussed or known I believe.  It should have a wider audience.

I do not mean to imply that female professional traders under-perform male professional traders.  I have not seen a lot of data one way or the other on that point, though apparently there are some indications the female-run hedge funds also outperform.

There are a few interesting reasons as for why this might be.  One is that females are better at “Theory of Mind” than males.  Theory of Mind is the label for how we predict and explain the behaviour of others.  One would expect then that since much of market out-performance is driven by predicting the behaviour of other market participants, that strong Theory of Mind would be possessed by better traders.  And this indeed is what the data show.  Since I don’t believe that anyone has explained Theory of Mind to traders, I also devote an early chapter of the book to that topic.

The other interesting possibility relates to confidence.  There is a curse of over-confidence that afflicts at least non-professional traders.  They fall in love with their own judgment.  But it is only a fickle love.  In three months, they will be in love with a new idea and a new stock.  This makes traders commit the cardinal error of over-trading.  It is well-known that “buy-and-hold” outperforms as a style over the long term.  The fact is though that many retail trading accounts turn over several times in the course of a year.

It turns out that females are not less over-confident than males in one sense: they also form beliefs which they assert as confidently.  However, it seems that female traders are less likely to act on these beliefs.  So they are protected by this from letting their over-confidence lure them into over-trading.

This is just one account of the data.  I cover more in the book.  If you are interested in Theory of Mind, you could also take a look at my first book:

Simulation Theory

Feel free to comment below.  You won’t have to login.

Kerviel: The SocGen Rogue Trader And What Is Surprising About How He Got Away With It

Jerome Kerviel, accused of being a rogue trader, is now on trial. SocGen lost $7bn in the incident which heads the list of major trading losses.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_trading_losses

How did he do it?

This is actually a very similar situation to Nick Leeson at Barings – number 11 in the top list. They were both involved in forms of arbitrage, which exploits tiny differences in price which ‘shouldn’t’ really be there. In fact, pricing theory fairly obviously requires that there can’t be a price difference between two identical items. If that were false – say if one loaf of bread had a different price to an identical one – then I could make a risk free profit by buying at the low price and selling at the high price. And there can’t be a risk free profit because everyone would pile in. You can see that what would happen would be that the prices would equalise.

Now this is what the arbitrageurs exploit. It all hinges on what ‘identical’ means. Not quite identical introduces some risk. Leeson was buying one product in Osaka and selling the same product in Singapore. Clearly if the product is the same, exactly, there is no risk. You might ask what might cause a price difference – there might be transient local factors such as someone big in Osaka decides to buy something. And then there could be a delay before Singapore catches up. And that catch-up process is exactly what the arbs do.

Kerviel was involved in arbing equity index futures and underlying equities. Equities are stocks, indices are groups of stocks like the FTSE-100 and equity index futures is just a bet on where the FTSE-100 will be in six months from now. Clearly you can do that on a risk free basis if you, say, sell the index and buy all the stocks in it. [Incidentally, if you want to be an insider trader but don’t want to go to prison, maybe you could buy an index in which the stock you can’t trade figures and then sell everything in the index except the one you aren’t allowed to trade…but I don’t recommend it…]

Why is it dangerous?

There are two common factors between this case and Leeson. In both, the alleged misdeeds were possible because the trader and the back office person were effectively the same person. Leeson actually did his own monitoring, an extraordinary failure which rightly cost the jobs of many at Barings. I could go further and say it was so remarkable that everyone involved in the company deserved to lose all their cash, but I know there were lots of Barings debentures held by grannies and I suspect we can’t expect them to have known what they were doing. While Kerviel came from back office himself and knew the control systems and would have known how to defeat them. I also will claim that back office types are rather easy for front office traders to browbeat and this history will have played a part in Kerviel’s psychology and the desire to get somewhere fast.

Secondly, because you are exploiting tiny price differences, you need to trade in vast amounts. And all the time. The control problem comes when you do not have offsetting equal and opposite trades but wind up taking huge uncovered positions. Leeson sorted this out with a fax purportedly evidencing a large receivable from a hedge fund. Towards the end, he was drawing in funding from all over Asia, which should have alerted someone.

What is odd about this case?

You can’t make large amounts of money from arbitrage. You just can’t, because risk and reward are closely linked. You can see from the loaf of bread example that that has to be true. So if you are a manager in an I-bank, you need to get very concerned if your arbitrage desk is making large profits.

Now this leads to the strange consequence that Kerviel must have been concealing large profits. And this is what you see.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20100608/ts_nm/us_socgen_kerviel

“During the largely procedural first day of the trial, Kerviel’s lawyer said Societe Generale would have been clearly able to see data showing Kerviel’s extraordinary profits of 1.4 billion euros at the end of 2007”

Note that this is profit not revenue, and that SocGen as a whole might typically make a net profit around EUR600m in a quarter. Do you think you could spot Kerviel in there?

“Seated on a plastic chair in front of rows of lawyers in black garb, the ex-trader said his annual salary at Societe Generale was 48,000 euros in 2006 with an annual bonus of 60,000 euros”

Now that is not a lot of money for traders. They might typically expect to make 5% to 10% of what they produce, or more in some cases where they are reliably producing large returns. Apparently Kerviel was expecting to make EUR300,000 for 08, on a declared profit of EUR60m. That’s a 0.5% return. You can see that this is not enough. Someone with that type of track record could just set up on their own, use the track record to raise funds, and trade themselves for maybe 50%. There is another type of arb there.

The GBPEUR exchange rate in 07 was 0.67, so we are talking about someone earning a salary of £32k. This is not far north of what we used to pay graduate trainees in London. So what we have here is someone being paid back office amounts, a French I-bank culture in which you shouldn’t really pay very much or have high quality people, and back office resentment of the flash and the furious.

“Lawyers also read a transcript of a conversation between Kerviel and SocGen’s ex-investment bank chief Jean-Pierre Mustier when the scandal broke, in which Mustier reportedly said: “If you won 1.4 billion euros, that means you’re very good. What you did was a pain, but it’s not a big deal.”

If Kerviel can make that out, then Mustier has failed in a stunning way to understand what arbitrage is. It is a French word, after all. It may be difficult to see how Kerviel can avoid jail, but he cannot have been on his own in this one.