Ellis on Battling Demons and Mr. Market
A lot of ground was covered in the first cut of my review on Charles Ellis’s book, Winning the Loser’s Game (“WTLG”). His book covers a broad spectrum of issues and reasons that help explain why so many amateurs and professional investors dramatically underperform broad market indexes and other forms of passive investing (such as index funds).
A major component of investor underperformance is tied to the internal or emotional aspects to investing. As I have written in the past, successful investing requires as much emotional art as it does mathematical science. Investing solely based on numbers is like a tennis player only able to compete with a backhand – you may hit a few good shots, but will end up losing in the long-run to the well-rounded players.
Ellis recognizes these core internal shortcomings and makes insightful observations throughout his book on how emotions can lead investors to lose. As George J.W. Goodman noted, “If you don’t know who you are, the stock market is an expensive place to find out.” Hopefully by examining more of Ellis’s investment nuggets, we can all become better investors, so let’s take a deeper dive.
Mischievous Mr. Market
Why is winning in the financial markets so difficult? Ellis devotes a considerable amount of time in WTLG talking about the crafty guy called “Mr. Market.” Here’s how Ellis describes the unique individual:
“Mr. Market is a mischievous but captivating fellow who persistently teases investors with gimmicks and tricks such as surprising earnings reports, startling dividend announcements, sudden surges of inflation, inspiring presidential announcements, grim reports of commodities prices, announcements of amazing new technologies, ugly bankruptcies, and even threats of war.”
Investors can easily get distracted by Mr. Market, and Ellis makes the point of why we are simple targets:
“Our internal demons and enemies are pride, fear, greed, exuberance, and anxiety. These are the buttons that Mr. Market most likes to push. If you have them, that rascal will find them. No wonder we are such easy prey for Mr. Market with all his attention-getting tricks.”
The market also has a way of lulling investors into complacency. Somehow, bull markets manage to make geniuses not only out of professionals and amateur investors, but also cab drivers and hair-dressers. Here is Ellis’s observation of how we tend to look at ourselves:
“We also think we are ‘above average’ as car drivers, as dancers, at telling jokes, at evaluating other people, as friends, as parents, and as investors. On average, we also believe our children are above average.”
This overconfidence and elevated self-assessment generally leads to excessive risk-taking and eventually hits arrogant investors over the head like a sledgehammer. Michael Mauboussin, Legg Mason Chief Investment Strategist and author of Think Twice, is a current thought leader in the field of behavioral finance that tackles many of these behavioral finance issues (read my earlier piece).
The Collateral Damage
As mentioned by Ellis in the previous WTLG article I wrote, “Eighty-five percent of investment managers have and will continue over the long term to underperform the overall market.” When emotions take over our actions, Mr. Market has a way of making investors make the worst decisions at the worst times. Ellis describes this phenomenon in more detail:
“The great risk to individual investors is not that the market can plummet, but that the investor may be frightened into liquidating his or her investments at or near the bottom and miss all the recovery, making the loss permanent. This happens to all too many investors in every terrible market drop.”
With the market about doubling from the early 2009 equity market lows, this devastating problem has become more evident. With volatility rearing its ugly head throughout 2008 and early 2009, investors bailed into low-yielding cash and Treasuries at the nastiest time. Now the stock market has catapulted upwards and those same investors now face significant interest rate risk and still are experiencing meager yields.
The Winning Formula
Ellis acknowledges the difficulty of winning at the investing game, but experience has shown him ways to combat the emotional demons. Number one…know thyself.
“’Know thyself’ is the cardinal rule in investing. The hardest work in investing is not intellectual; it’s emotional.”
Knowing thyself is easier said than done, but experience and mistakes are tremendous aids in becoming a better investor – especially if you are an investor who spends time studying the missteps and learns from them.
From a practical portfolio construction standpoint, how can investors combat their pesky emotions? Probably the best idea is to follow Ellis’s sage advice, which is to “sell down to the sleeping point. Don’t go outside your zone of competence because outside that zone you may get emotional, and being emotional is never good for your investing.”
Finding good investment ideas is just half the battle – fending off the demons and Mr. Market can be just as, if not more, challenging. Fortunately, Mr. Ellis has been kind enough to share his insights, allowing investors of all types to take this valuable investment advice to help win at a losing game.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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