Monday, August 24, 2009

Manifesto to invest/live by

Q2 2009 Letter from Elliot Management:

"To this, we say maybe... and maybe not. Our job, as stewards of Elliott’s capital, is not to choose one of the big possibilities (including, among other things: renewed collapse; recovery starting now; double-dip recession; recovery co-existing with a continued downturn in commercial real estate and then an inflation crisis) and aggressively position Elliott’s portfolio accordingly. Rather, our job is to preserve capital and to make some money on a consistent basis regardless of which scenario (or crazy combination of several) actually comes to pass. That is the really tricky part, because significant differences exist between them.

We have a number of positions which are progressing in their own timeframes and processes, not related to anything else in our book. We actively look for such uncorrelated situations, and we think that type of position is more of a primary focus for us than for most other hedge funds. Other positions that we own have a variety of risks which are impacted by what is happening in global financial markets. We hedge these risks either internally, with similar assets, or externally, by single assets, indices or derivatives. We will try not to lock ourselves into a rigid set of macro assumptions, attempt to control our own destiny to the extent we can, and do the best job possible on the “knowable” part of the equation (analysis and research). This is the “secret” to our longevity and consistency, even though we view it as the well-worn and time-tested contents of a broad and deep tool chest, which always come in handy but whose value is most vivid in tough times like these."

Great Quote

You could contrast this perspective with China's economic policy of 保八

Robert Kennedy on his campaign trail for the US presidency on March 18, 1968:

"We will find neither national purpose nor personal satisfaction in a mere continuation of economic progress, in an endless amassing of worldly goods. We cannot measure national spirit by the Dow Jones Average, nor national achievement by the Gross National Product. For the Gross National Product includes air pollution, and ambulances to clear our highways from carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and jails for the people who break them. The Gross National Product includes the destruction of the redwoods and the death of Lake Superior. It grows with the production of napalm and missles and nuclear warheads.... It includes... the broadcasting of television programs which glorify violence to sell goods to our children. And if the Gross National Product includes all this, there is much that it does not comprehend. It does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike. It does not include the beauty of our poetry, or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials... the Gross National Product measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile, and it can tell us everything about America -- except whether we are proud to be Americans."

Monday, August 10, 2009

Nice reminder of the folly of modern finance

John Mauldin's Aug 7th newsletter (GO! must read!):

Awesome excerpt:

"The EMH also teaches us that opportunities will be fleeting as someone will surely try to arbitrage them away. This, of course, is akin to the age old joke about the economist and his friend walking along the street. The friend points out a $100 bill lying on the pavement. The economist says, "It isn't really there because if it were someone would have already picked it up".

Sadly these simple edicts are no joking matter as they are probably the most damaging aspects of the EMH legacy. Thus the EMH urges investors to try and forecast the future. In my opinion this is one of the biggest wastes of time, yet one that is nearly universal in our industry. Pretty much 80-90% of the investment processes that I come across revolve around forecasting. Yet there isn't a scrap of evidence to suggest that we can actually see the future at all."

The undue focus upon benchmark and relative performance also leads Homo Ovinus to engage in Keynes' beauty contest. As Keynes wrote:

"Professional investment may be likened to those newspaper competitions in which the competitors have to pick out the six prettiest faces from a hundred photographs, the price being awarded to the competitor whose choice most nearly corresponds to the average preference of the competitors as a whole; so that each competitor has to pick, not those faces which he himself finds prettiest, but those which he thinks likeliest to catch the fancy of the other competitors, all of whom are looking at the problem from the same point of view. It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best of one's judgment, are really prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practice the fourth, fifth and higher degrees"

This game can be easily replicated by asking people to pick a number between 0 and 100, and telling them the winner will be the person who picks the number closest to two-thirds the average number picked. The chart below shows the results from the largest incidence of the game that I have played - in fact the third largest game ever played, and the only one played purely among professional investors.

The highest possible correct answer is 67. To go for 67 you have to believe that every other muppet in the known universe has just gone for 100. The fact we got a whole raft of responses above 67 is more than slightly alarming.

You can see spikes which represent various levels of thinking. The spike at fifty reflects what we (somewhat rudely) call level zero thinkers. They are the investment equivalent of Homer Simpson, 0, 100, duh 50! Not a vast amount of cognitive effort expended here!

There is a spike at 33 - of those who expect everyone else in the world to be Homer. There's a spike at 22, again those who obviously think everyone else is at 33. As you can see there is also a spike at zero. Here we find all the economists, game theorists and mathematicians of the world. They are the only people trained to solve these problems backwards. And indeed the only stable Nash equilibrium is zero (two-thirds of zero is still zero). However, it is only the 'correct' answer when everyone chooses zero.

The final noticeable spike is at one. These are economists who have (mistakenly...) been invited to one dinner party (economists only ever get invited to one dinner party). They have gone out into the world and realised the rest of the world doesn't think like them. So they try to estimate the scale of irrationality. However, they end up suffering the curse of knowledge (once you know the true answer, you tend to anchor to it). In this game, which is fairly typical, the average number picked was 26, giving a two-thirds average of 17. Just three people out of more than 1000 picked the number 17.

I play this game to try to illustrate just how hard it is to be just one step ahead of everyone else - to get in before everyone else, and get out before everyone else. Yet despite this fact, it seems to be that this is exactly what a large number of investors spend their time doing.