Fundholders, Salespeople and Timeframe of Judgement

“Don’t worry Mr Berry, I can assure you that these fund managers are put through their paces rigorously. Not only do we meet them and psychologically profile them every 3 months or so but we are inspecting their results practically every day.” It was with these words that my investment advisor for a well known financial services company lost my custom in his attempt to sell me the virtues of their “fund of funds” investment practice.

I know from my work with investors in other similar well-known organizations that there are several fundamental problems with entrusting your money to people who work for institutions. Some people will tell you that the problem is that the money isn’t theirs and therefore they don’t care enough about it. This is not the problem. Or certainly not the only problem. Just as problematic is the fact that because they are accountable to others they care too much! About the Short Term, at least!

This isn’t entirely fair. There are some great companies out there with whom to entrust your savings and obviously there are equally big problems with investing it yourself such as plain old ignorance and your own personal fear of failure.

But ask any analyst what are the essential problems with his traders decisions and he will tell you: despite a billion dollars of IT telling them exactly what to do, professional investors still go and make emotional decisions. Most notably, they sell appreciating stocks too soon and depreciating ones too late. Why?

Because anyone who buys or acquires an asset (like a stock or share but hopefully the regular reader of this blog will think more broadly than this) that goes up in price will experience a pretty small increase in their overall utility or happiness as the price of that asset increases.

Let’s imagine for a moment that you are operating in an environment where your short term results are scrutinized. Lets imagine that someone (could be your manager, could be your fund-of-funds manager, could be your shareholders, it doesn’t really matter) sees the increase that you have just enjoyed as a green number on your screen or balance sheet. Looks good. Everyone’s happy. The problem is that you know that all the information you have is telling you to hold on to that asset because it’s Long Term value of Expectation is good and positive. It could go down – possibly even to below the buy price. But it could go up. Perhaps significantly so…. But it could go down.

And then that green number is would turn red. And all your congratulations would be rescinded. And the good first impression which you initially created would be called into question. So, despite the fact that everything is telling you to hold onto that asset the law of diminishing marginal utility means that as it does so you have more and more to lose and proportionately much much less emotionally to gain. So what would you do in a rational-emotional sense while it’s still green?

Conversely, let’s imagine for a moment that the price of the asset falls soon after you purchase it. You experience an initially quite severe loss of utility as you now have an ugly red number on your screen or in the wrong column on your balance sheet. What do you want to do deep down right now? Get rid of it sure. But that’s just going to bank the loss and preserve it for posterity and everyone to see. What do you really want to do in this situation? That’s right. Exactly what Nick Leeson wanted to do. You want to get even on the deal. You want hold on to it. Because even though all the information is telling you that this thing has a negative future Expectation… it could… it could go up. Maybe even back above the buy price. It could become a green number!

If it goes down it will just become a bigger red number, “well” you think, “you’ll deal with that when the time comes”. Your results for the day/week/month are going to be reviewed this afternoon, you decide to hold onto it just in case it goes up before then and turns green. Although it doesn’t.

What was the problem here? You work for an investment bank. And yet you’re making the emotional decisions which are not profit maximizing and therefore not serving your clients effectively. Why is that?

The problem is one of outlook, corporate culture or individual mentality. In the example cited, I am stressing the essentially Short Term nature of your assessment in a world where it is Long Term results that ultimately matter. Again, the Long Term is no particular time frame but just whatever your overall goal is. If someone could guarantee you that you’d make a 23% return this year you wouldn’t care what the results were in week two! By evaluating you on irrelevant results, the culture is forcing you to make rational-emotional decisions, of the kind that brought down Barings Bank.

These are the same rational-emotional decisions which persuade a poker player to quit for the evening because he’s made a sum of money with which he’s happy even though his opponents are drunk and effectively giving it to him in the Long Term. Of course, there is nothing to say that the next hand won’t give those same drunkards a four of a kind against your aces full, but that doesn’t matter. Your Long Term Expectation is positive. Quitting is effectively losing you money even though it may look like you’re saving it. And I’ll say it again, this isn’t just happening at the poker tables of Las Vegas, it’s happening every day with billions of dollars at stake. Short term accountability is costing you and me money! Oh the irony!

Nick Leeson – King of the Rational Emotional Decision Makers

Nick Leeson is a working class lad made good. Then made bad. Then made good again. His story is famous the world over. He is the man who brought down an entire bank. Exactly how this was allowed to happen is of course a Black Swan in itself but it did and the fallout was immense, not least for Leeson himself who ended up in a Singapore jail for several years before laudably coming back with a vengeance and writing a book about his recovery and the effect that stress can have and how to beat it.

The exact details of what happened in 1995 are obviously complicated but essentially the principle is exactly as the world understands it: by the end of 1992, the amount concealed in the error account was £2m, but the end of £1994 it was £208m and by 23 Feb 1995 Leeson fled the country leaving a note saying “I’m sorry” and an account which held £827m in losses. Essentially, Leeson had got caught in a spiral of loss partly due to his decision to use a system to try and correct what began as fairly modest errors.

The system – known as the Martingale system – is known to gamblers and traders the world over and must be the cause of more unhappy nights in Vegas than any other. Essentially, it says if you lose your first bet (of, let’s say $1) you simply double it on the next spin, or hand, and if you lose that, simply double it again and so on and so on until you, eventually win, as you eventually must. The inherent problem with the system is that in theory it works perfectly. At some point within an infinite period of time, however, the monkey on the typewriter will bash out the works of Shakespeare or at least a sonnet or two! What the laws of probability don’t say, however, is WHEN! Which means that an infinite bankroll is required to make the system work in practice, something that even Warren Buffet doesn’t have. And neither did Barings Bank!

But here’s the question: why – when he was £100 million pounds down, did Leeson – an apparently intelligent, determined young man keep going? Why not throw in the towel, concede defeat and do the time that he was ultimately sentenced to do? Why push the envelope until the point of no return and potentially destroy everything for everyone in the process.

The answer lies in the meanings or values that Leeson placed on the different possible outcomes of the potential opportunities available to him.

The only thing that meant anything at all to him at that point was just breaking even. Reducing the losses to £70 or £40 million meant nothing. He was still going to lose his job and almost certainly go to jail in this eventuality. Increasing the losses to £200, £300 even £400 or £500 million was not going to worsen the situation for him really. He had got to a stage where the downside remained the same and the meaning of the upside (his possible reward) was everything. Effectively doubling through and breaking even meant safety, it meant freedom, it meant employment, it meant an end to the stress which eventually gave him cancer. It meant getting the life he loved back.

In this way Nick Leeson was no different to the millions of gamblers who step inside the billion dollar casinos in Las Vegas or Sun City or Mayfair or anywhere around the world. Largely otherwise intelligent, rational people make decisions for an evening which deep down they know will cost them money. People who play slot machines, for the most part, know deep down that the house will win in the long run. I’m not saying that there aren’t people in those places who become convinced that they are “hot” or that they have a “system”.

For Nick Leeson, whatever the probability of the downside, the meaning he placed on losing even more money was minimal. The only thing which meant anything at all to him was breaking even. This was immoral, certainly, given the consequences of his actions for thousands of people but rationally… well, rationally it made sense! Given a similar lack of moral fibre any one of us might well do the same in the same situation.

Certainly given a different situation which, for example, forced us to make a decision to do something which might kill us but which might also very well save the life of our child, which mother or father would not take this course of action? Naturally, this is a hypothetical situation with no detail at all and the first thing you would want to know would be the probabilities involved – but we’ve already covered that. The point is that the meaning we place on the possible upside as a parent would far outweigh the potential downside. Somewhat morbidly, in order to more closely simulate Nick Leeson’s emotional calculation we would probably have to assume that we were likely to die in either event – a factor which would make the ultimate decision a no-brainer.

The situation that Leeson found himself in was very different to going into a casino with £50 (or even £50 million like Kerry Packer did) that you’re happy and prepared to lose. It’s more akin to the position that the poor sap who has heard about the Martingale system finds himself in after maxing out two credit cards in a desperate bid to win back that first $10 after a statistically freakish but eminently possible 10 spin losing run (1024 -1 against). Now, we are anything but happy. We are anything but prepared. But in much the same way, if for very different reasons, there is very little additional pain we can experience. It’s not just our credit cards that are maxed. So are our pain levels. And the only way is up.

Posted 02:47pm by Caspar and filed in Decision Making, Risk