The Investment Scientist

Archive for March 2020

28_base-rate-neglect.jpgAllow me to ask you a seemingly unrelated question: what do you think the most common hair color in Ireland is? If you answered red, you are like the majority of people, but you are also wrong. The most common hair color in Ireland is dark brown (80%.) 

As you answered that question, what went through your mind? What mechanism caused you to arrive at the wrong answer? How is it relevant to stock market investing? I will answer these questions one by one in the space below.

If you answered red, you were using a mental shortcut called the representative heuristic to answer the question. What is the representative heuristic, exactly? It essentially says we humans tend to erroneously equate what is representative to what is likely. Indeed, red hair is representative of Irish people. Just under 10% of the Irish are redheads, compared to 1% of the rest of Europe. So the typical Irish in your head is a redhead, probably wearing green clothes and holding a pint of Guinness. Since you can easily recall a redhead Irish in your mind, you think therefore that the Irish are more likely to be redheads.

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crowdsource.jpgYesterday I wrote about this little mental quirk called the “availability bias” that could cost you a lot. I gave you an example, based on my conversations with clients and their propensities that I had to suppress. If an investor sold his portfolio four days ago at the bottom of the market based on his experience the prior week, and bought back yesterday because he was inspired by the 3-day 20% rally, he would have owned 20% less productive assets.  This is even though the total dollar amount is the same, since what he bought was 20% more expensive than when he sold it.

But most likely, this person won’t sense any loss, since after all, he owns the same dollar amount of stocks. How cool is that? He loses 20% of his wealth, his future income will be 20% less, and yet he barely notices it. It turns out there is another mental quirk that is playing games with him. It is called the “saliency bias.”

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drawing-chart-going-up.jpgAfter three days of the stock market rallying, I have noticed a change of tune among my clients who have been calling me. Three days ago, a few of them were asking if they should get out of the market altogether and wait until things turned the corner. Three days and 20% higher in the Dow, they want to increase their investment in stocks. But why? Why are stocks so bad when they are 20% cheaper and so good now that they are 20% more expensive!?

There is a little mental quirk that has been playing games with us. This quirk was discovered by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, together with his trusted collaborator Amos Tversky who died too young to share the Nobel Prize. This quirk is called “availability bias.” That is when we assess the probability of a future event, we try to recall that event from our memory. If the event can be easily recalled, we subjectively judge it to be more likely. Read the rest of this entry »

Now that the panic has abated a little, many financial advisors (FAs) are advising their clients to buy strong stocks on sale. None other than Jim Cramer made the same proclamation, he even mentioned ten stocks by name. (Just FYI, he did the same in 2008 – and I did a study afterward – 8 out of the 10 underperformed the S&P 500 index that year.)

So what are the strong stocks to own? Are they industrial titans like Boeing or GE? They were strong stocks but are they still? Are they Wall Street banks too big to fail like JP Morgan or Citibank? But how do we know they’re not just another Lehman Brothers? Is it a consumer tech giant like Apple? How can we be sure it won’t go the way of Sony, which was the previous consumer tech giant. How about Netflix? When we are stuck at home social distancing, you’ve got to watch Netflix right? But what if Amazon, Apple and the other big boys jumping in the streaming market eat its lunch?

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1.jpgPrior to the market’s open yesterday, the Fed announced unlimited asset purchases that also include corporate bonds, municipal bonds and securities backed by consumer loans.


There is a long-term downside of taking this measure. I am not going to write about it until the market calms down. Today I am going to write about the short-term upside for the economy, for the market and for investors like us.

Whether it is called QE (quantitative easing), asset purchases, or balance sheet expansion, it means the same thing: the Fed is creating new money. Just ten days ago, the Fed announced they would create $1.5T new money, but the market pretty much ignored that. Now the Fed is essentially saying that they will create as much money as possible to back-stop this financial crisis.

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018443422de7644a788fd5f9daa27e3a.jpgOver the weekend, a client of mine sent me a news report about how Senator Richard Burr, head of the Senate intelligence committee, sold his stocks before the coronavirus market crash. This maneuver is called front-running the market. Simply explained, if you possess superior information that the market does not have yet, you can massively profit from this superior information by positioning your portfolio ahead of the anticipated impact the information will have on the market once it becomes public.

There is a whole body of academic studies on who has superior information. They are the usual suspects: lawmakers and company executives. Regarding company executives, research shows that CEOs and COOs have the best inside information, followed by CFOs. After that, information superiority drops off quickly. The information possessed by company directors is rarely superior. Research also shows that legislators are able to position their portfolios as they make laws. The difference between lawmakers and company executives is that the latter’s actions are heavily regulated and the former’s are not.

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MW-DB025_balaci_20141208133245_ZQ.jpgBy the close of the market yesterday, the Dow was discounted by 32% from its peak just three weeks ago. This level of discount happens once a decade. The last two times were during the 2000 dotcom bubble burst and 2008 financial crisis. 

I have been busy rebalancing portfolios for myself and my clients. What is a rebalancing? Imagine a client has a target allocation of 60/40, that is, 60% in stocks and 40% in bonds. After the last round of discounts, the allocation becomes 45/55. To get back to the target, I must sell bonds worth 15% of the portfolio and use the money to buy stocks.

All investors set out to buy low and sell high, but when the market is giving them a 30% discount, most of them freak out and want to sell every stock instead. There are a few human judgement heuristics and biases at play here that were studied by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, like representative bias, base rate neglect, availability bias, anchoring and framing heuristic. When I have time, I will write about those heuristics and biases.

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unnamed (11).jpgYesterday, what got lost in the panic selling was the Federal Reserve’s announcement that $1.5T will be injected into the banking system. 

Nowadays, money is created not through Treasury’s printing press, but through the Fed’s central bank balance sheet expansion. I won’t bore you with the mechanism. Suffice to say that yesterday, $1.5T of new money was created, and this new money has to go somewhere.

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Let me start with my usual disclaimer that I can not predict the market. This article is an exercise in which I think through possible scenarios for the market. Also, while the media and common folks like to use “crash”, “tumble”, “fall,” etc to describe the market, I prefer to use the term“discount”. The former signifies danger while the latter signifies opportunity. 

As of the market close yesterday, after dropping 2000+ points, the Dow is right at the edge of correction territory (meaning down barely 20%.) The 2000+ point drop was the result of the double whammy of coronavirus out of control in Italy, and oil prices dropping 30% because of a price war between Russia and Saudi.

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Michael Zhuang is principal of MZ Capital, a fee-only independent advisory firm based in Washington, DC.

Twitter: @mzhuang

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