Saturday, November 17, 2007

Born to Be Good?

Reading the S'pore Business Times, I cam across this article by Ms. Teh Hooi Ling, Reading this won't make you great

  • Business Times - 17 Nov 2007

    Reading this won't make you great

    Mark Sellers, founder of a Chicago-based hedge fund, argues that the best investors are born with particular psychological traits that others can never learn


    WHAT makes someone a great investor? It's something you have to be born with, said Mark Sellers, founder and managing member of Sellers Capital LLC, a long/short equity hedge fund based in Chicago.

    Apparently, it's not about your IQ, the education you've had, the books you've read, or the experience you've accumulated. 'If it's experience, then all the great money managers would have their best years in their 60s and 70s and 80s, and we know that's not true,' he said in a speech to a class of Harvard MBA students.

    Intelligence and learning are obviously necessary too, and are sources of competitive advantage for an investor, but there are structural assets some possess that cannot be copied or learnt by others. 'They have to do with psychology and psychology is hard wired into your brain. It's part of you. You can't do much to change it even if you read a lot of books on the subject,' said Mr Sellers...

This made me so interested. I searched the net and I found the text of his speech: here

Here's part of the said speech.

  • Another thing that won't make you a great investor is an MBA from a top school or a CFA or PhD or CPA or MS or any of the other dozens of possible degrees and designations you can obtain. Harvard can’t teach you to be a great investor. Neither can my alma mater, Northwestern University, or Chicago, or Wharton, or Stanford. I like to say that an MBA is the best way to learn how to exactly, precisely, equal the market return. You can reduce your tracking error dramatically by getting an MBA. This often results in a big paycheck even though it’s the antithesis of what a great investor does. You can’t buy or study your way to being a great investor. These things won’t give you a moat. They are simply things that make it easier to get invited into the poker game.

    Experience is another over-rated thing. I mean, it's incredibly important, but it’s not a source of competitive advantage. It's another thing that is just required for admission. At some point the value of experience reaches the point of diminishing returns. If that wasn't true, all the great money managers would have their best years in their 60s and 70s and 80s, and we know that’s not true. So some level of experience is necessary to play the game, but at some point, it doesn’t help any more and in any event, it’s not a source of an economic moat for an investor. Charlie Munger talks about this when he says you can recognize when someone ‘gets it’ right away, and sometimes it’s someone who has almost no investing experience.

    So what are the sources of competitive advantage for an investor? Just as with a company or an industry, the moats for investors are structural. They have to do with psychology, and psychology is hard wired into your brain. It's a part of you. You can't do much to change it even if you read a lot of books on the subject.

    The way I see it, there are at least seven traits great investors share that are true sources of advantage because they can't be learned once a person reaches adulthood. In fact, some of them can’t be learned at all; you’re either born with them or you aren't.

    Trait #1 is the ability to buy stocks while others are panicking and sell stocks while others are euphoric. Everyone thinks they can do this, but then when October 19, 1987 comes around and the market is crashing all around you, almost no one has the stomach to buy. When the year 1999 comes around and the market is going up almost every day, you can't bring yourself to sell because if you do, you may fall behind your peers. The vast majority of the people who manage money have MBAs and high IQs and have read a lot of books. By late 1999, all these people knew with great certainty that stocks were overvalued, and yet they couldn’t bring themselves to take money off the table because of the 'institutional imperative', as Buffett calls it.

    The second character trait of a great investor is that he is obsessive about playing the game and wanting to win. These people don’t just enjoy investing; they live it. They wake up in the morning and the first thing they think about, while they’re still half asleep, is a stock they have been researching, or one of the stocks they are thinking about selling, or what the greatest risk to their portfolio is and how they’re going to neutralize that risk. They often have a hard time with personal relationships because, though they may truly enjoy other people, they don’t always give them much time. Their head is always in the clouds, dreaming about stocks. Unfortunately, you cannot learn to be obsessive about something. You either are, or you aren't. And if you aren't, you can't be the next Bruce Berkowitz.

    A third trait is the willingness to learn from past mistakes. The thing that is so hard for people and what sets some investors apart is an intense desire to learn from their own mistakes so they can avoid repeating them. Most people would much rather just move on and ignore the dumb things they’ve done in the past. I believe the term for this is 'repression'. But if you ignore mistakes without fully analyzing them, you will undoubtedly make a similar mistake later in your career. And in fact, even if you do analyze them it’s tough to avoid repeating the same mistakes.

    A fourth trait is an inherent sense of ris based on common sense. Most people know the story of Long Term Capital Management, where a team of 60 or 70 PhDs with sophisticated risk models failed to realize what, in retrospect, seemed obvious: they were dramatically overleveraged. They never stepped back and said to themselves, 'Hey, even though the computer says this is ok, does it really make sense in real life?' The ability to do this is not as prevalent among human beings as you might think. I believe the greatest risk control is common sense, but people fall into the habit of sleeping well at night because the computer says they should. They ignore common sense, a mistake I see repeated over and over in the investment world.

    Trait #5: Great investors have confidence in their own convictions and stick with them, even when facing criticism. Buffett never get into the dot-com mania thought he was being criticized publicly for ignoring technology stocks. He stuck to his guns when everyone else was abandoning the value investing ship and Barron’s was publishing a picture of him on the cover with the headline 'What's Wrong, Warren?' Of course, it worked out brilliantly for him and made Barron’s look like a perfect contrary indicator. Personally, I’m amazed at how little conviction most investors have in the stocks they buy. Instead of putting 20% of their portfolio into a stock, as the Kelly Formula might say to do, they’ll put 2% into it. Mathematically, using the Kelly Formula, it can be shown that a 2% position is the equivalent of betting on a stock has only a 51% chance of going up, and a 49% chance of going down. Why would you waste your time even making that bet? These guys are getting paid $1 million a year to identify stocks with a 51% chance of going up? It’s insane.

    Sixth, it's important to have both sides of your brain working, not just the left side (the side that's good at math and organization.) In business school, I met a lot of people who were incredibly smart. But those who were majoring in finance couldn’t write worth a damn and had a hard time coming up with inventive ways to look at a problem. I was a little shocked at this. I later learned that some really smart people have only one side of their brains working, and that is enough to do very well in the world but not enough to be an entrepreneurial investor who thinks differently from the masses. On the other hand, if the right side of your brain is dominant, you probably loath math and therefore you don’t often find these people in the world of finance to begin with. So finance people tend to be very left-brain oriented and I think that’s a problem. I believe a great investor needs to have both sides turned on. As an investor, you need to perform calculations and have a logical investment thesis. This is your left brain working. But you also need to be able to do things such as judging a management team from subtle cues they give off. You need to be able to step back and take a big picture view of certain situations rather than analyzing them to death. You need to have a sense of humor and humility and common sense. And most important, I believe you need to be a good writer. Look at Buffett; he's one of the best writers ever in the business world. It’s not a coincidence that he’s also one of the best investors of all time. If you can’t write clearly, it is my opinion that you don’t think very clearly. And if you don't think clearly, you're in trouble. There are a lot of people who have genius IQs who can’t think clearly, though they can figure out bond or option pricing in their heads.

    And finally the most important, and rarest, trait of all: The ability to live through volatility without changing your investment thought process. This is almost impossible for most people to do; when the chips are down they have a terrible time not selling their stocks at a loss. They have a really hard time getting themselves to average down or to put any money into stocks at all when the market is going down. People don't like short term pain even if it would result in better long-term results. Very few investors can handle the volatility required for high portfolio returns. They equate short-term volatility with risk. This is irrational; risk means that if you are wrong about a bet you make, you lose money. A swing up or down over a relatively short time period is not a loss and therefore not risk, unless you are prone to panicking at the bottom and locking in the loss. But most people just can't see it that way; their brains won't let them. Their panic instinct steps in and shuts down the normal brain function.

    I would argue that none of these traits can be learned once a person reaches adulthood. By that time, your potential to be an outstanding investor later in life has already been determined. It can be honed, but not developed from scratch because it mostly has to do with the way your brain is wired and experiences you have as a child. That doesn’t mean financial education and reading and investing experience aren’t important. Those are critical just to get into the game and keep playing. But those things can be copied by anyone. The seven traits above can’t be.

Extremely interesting... eh?