Nobody Goes There, It’s Too Crowded – PT1

Some of the smartest data crunchers and financial experts in the world have been among the most profoundly wrong when it comes to predicting what the markets will do in the short and long-term future. That’s because investing is as much about art as it is about science…intuition plus facts. If you are familiar with tech concepts like Moore’s Law or just apply some common sense of how the power of computing devices has amazingly evolved over the last 30+ years, one might conclude that a purely quant-based system is unlikely to ever get market forecasting right. I increasingly believe that to be the case.

Why? Because the markets are not purely driven by logic. There is no rigid formula that can always predict if a stock is going to rise or fall. I suspect the hunt for such a system is much like the cosmological hunt for the so-called “theory of everything” — a forever pursuit that never quite reaches a finish line…in spite of how smart our brightest intellects become and how rapidly the very best technology and tools they use evolves. It seems we should be about smart enough and well-equipped enough to solve both puzzles, but both may not be resolved with complex math alone. In short, both probably rely on more than can be deduced in formulaic computations.

With market forecasting, 1+1 can equal 3. Why? Because there is more to where things are going than just math, and even the most advanced AI algorithms have not yet been developed that completely factor in concepts like group emotions, sentiment, and “irrational exuberance”. How do I know this? As soon as anyone would have a perfect forecasting device, how long would it take them to become ruler of the financial world? Answer: almost no time at all. Do we have a sense of any such ruler now?

One may try to argue that the big banks play this role now, but there is competition there — no one bank is thoroughly dominating the others so much that it implies they have perfected a system. Could the owner of such a system hold back? They could, but that would conflict with a fundamental driver of all players in the markets: greed. Could a Goldman Sachs or Chase or Morgan Stanley resist the greed to make more money if all of their investments in cutting edge technology and the brightest brains had actually yielded a perfect system? I think not. Instead even Goldman, Chase and Morgan take their trading lumps from time to time.

Why? Again, there’s more to forecasting profitable plays than just logic-based algorithms. I am a firm believer that the best way to “beat the street” is to blend the fact and quant-oriented science one can apply to the task with the wisdom and experienced-driven art. Those who sell fundamental and technical analysis education products desperately want individual investors to believe that the path to profitable investing is entirely in finding a holy grail combination of technical indicators applied in some unique way. But I believe that’s seeing only a portion of a picture. And the whole picture depends on something as seemingly illogical as good “gut feel.”

Now, I believe there is a huge difference from random guessing, coin flipping, luck and chance and this kind of “gut feel.” For example, I would not encourage all investors to completely lean on their guts to make their investing decisions. This intuition I’m referring to is more about applying experience and leveraging wisdom from many years of observation. What makes a massive number of losers every day in the markets is not a bunch of naive people wild guessing about whether some stock is going to rise or fall. Some of them will have tried their very best, applying technically sound knowledge and leveraging systems to filter their investment selections from all possibilities down to a favored few. And yet, they still lose on some trades. Why? Because there’s more to it than fundamentals and technicals. And this wisdom and experience has its place (I actually believe at least an equal place with the fact-driven quant approaches).

I’m often asked how I would sum up my investing intuition and to what I would most credit my ability to make massive gains when so many are losing their shirts. And I boil it down mostly to a single attitude: watch what the masses do and then do the opposite. Many might tag this as being a contrarian and that basically fits. Make an assumption that the “herd” is wrong and act accordingly. Obviously making financial decisions is quite a bit more nuanced than that, but it’s one good bread rule to trade by — and one you should consider too. Think about the current investment picture. Where is the herd practically stampeding now?

Throughout the millennia as cultures and nations and technologies have changed radically, one thing has remained the same and will never change: human nature. And human nature reveals two driving sentiments in investing, fear and greed, which underpin nearly every emotional decision concerning money. It is eternal and the lessons that can be learned from the mistakes made by those who give in to fear and greed seem to be lost as one generation is replaced by the next.

How many people:

  • Know the ancient fable “The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs”?
  • Know the moral of that story even from a young age? And yet,
  • Fail to apply it to their investing approach when they are old enough to know better?

So many of the “bubbles” referenced in the financial media reflect that. Just before the dramatic housing market collapse in the midst of the Great Recession, there was a massive bubble in which investors and homeowners wanted to jump in and ride the wave to a financial bonanza. They were not buying a home in which to live. They were not buying a home with an income goal by making it a rental. The game — the intoxication — was to buy a home with the intent to flip it (buy it, hold it for a while, then sell it at a higher price). And since it seemed to be working — even easily — for those early in that opportunity, more and more and more “investors” piled on.

The problem with bubbles is that few people realize, as they get high on the thrill of the ride, that they are in fact in a bubble. So when a bubble finally bursts — as all bubbles eventually do — it comes as a great shock to many of those involved. In short, individual investors see the wave swelling and greed compels them to jump in. As it reaches it’s climax- when they are killing that goose to try to get all of the gold at once- reality sets in. Then fear drives them to run for the hills after the crash, which makes the crash all the worse.

The lesson here is that when we see masses of individual investors and small advisers quickly buying up stocks, funds and ETFs, for instance, it’s probably a good time to stop and take a broader look at what everyone’s so excited about. Fundamentals and technicals may scream to keep riding the trend — just like they screamed to ride the Real Estate “flipping” trend barely a decade ago — but they are only right while more and more buyers keep piling in.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog post as I delve a little deeper into how these bubbles form and ultimately go bust — and what you can do to prevent getting caught up in them. In the meantime, if you have particular questions about bubbles, stocks, options or topics you think I should cover, email me at mike@mikegaliga.com.