A very good friend of mine recently decided to take a sabbatical. But two weeks into it he started getting fidgety. The prospect of not doing anything was turning out to be too hot to handle for him. So, one morning he called up his boss and told him that this decision to go on a sabbatical was not the right one, and given this, he wanted to get back to work.
My friend’s boss, had taken a sabbatical last year, and understood the value of a big break away from work. Given this, he refused to let my friend get back to work so soon, and suggested that he continue with the sabbatical, now that he had decided to take one.
One more week into the sabbatical, my friend simply couldn’t handle it. One day he simply landed up at work, without consulting his boss. And thus ended his sabbatical.
The point in sharing this story is that it is difficult “do nothing”, even though at times it might be the most important thing to do.
In a recent interview to Wisden, the former Australian cricketer Dean Jones, pointed out that two thirds of Sachin Tendulkar’s game was based around forward defence, back-foot defence and leaving the ball, without trying to play it. As Amay Hattangadi and Swanand Kelkar write in a research eport titled The Value of Doing Nothing and dated February 2014 “As any coach would vouch, letting the ball go is possibly as important as hitting good shots in the career of a batsman.”
In fact, not doing anything is a very important part of successful investing. But the investment industry is not structured liked that. They have to ensure that their customers keep trading, even if it is detrimental for the them. As Arthur Levitt, a former Chairman of the Securities Exchange Commission, the stock market regulator in the United States, writes in Take on the Street – How to Fight for Your Financial Future “Brokers may seem like clever financial experts, but they are first and foremost salespeople. Many brokers are paid a commission, or a service fee, on every transaction in accounts they manage. They want you to buy stocks you don’t own and sell the ones you do., because that’s how they make money for themselves and their firms. They earn commissions even when you lose money.”
The brokers only make money when investors keep buying and selling through them. This is also true about insurance and mutual fund agents, who make bigger commissions at the time investors invest and then lower commissions as the investors stay invested.
As Adam Smith (not the famous economist) writes in The Money Game “They could put you in some stock that would go up ten times, but then they would starve to death. They only get commissions when you buy and sell. So they keep you moving.”
Levitt proves this point by taking the example of Warren Buffett to make his point. “Warren Buffett, the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc and one of the smartest investors I’ve ever met, knows all about broker conflicts. He likes to point that any broker who recommended buying and holding Berkshire Hathaway stock from 1965 to now would have made his clients fabulously wealthy. A single share of Berkshire Hathaway purchased for $12 in 1965 would be worth $71,000 as of April 2002. But, any broker who did that would have starved to death.”
Hence, it is important for stock brokers, insurance and mutual fund agents to get their investors to keep moving from one investment to another.
But how do stock brokers manage to do this all the time? Andy Kessler has an excellent explanation for this in Wall Street Meat. As he writes “The market opens for trading five days a week… Companies report earnings once every quarter. But stocks trade about 250 days a year. Something has to make them move up or down the other 246 days [250 days – the four days on which companies declare quarterly results]. Analysts fill that role. They recommend stocks, change recommendations, change earnings estimates, pound the table—whatever it takes for a sales force to go out with a story so someone will trade with the firm and generate commissions.”
But why are these analysts taken seriously more often than not? As John Kenneth Galbraith writes in The Economics of Innocent Fraud “ And there is no easy denial of an expert’s foresight. Past accidental success and an ample display of charts, equations and self-confidence depth of perception. Thus the fraud. Correction awaits.”
This has led to a situation where investors are buying and selling all the time. As Hattangadi and Kelkar point out “In fact, the median holding period of the top 100 stocks by market capitalisation in the U.S. has shrunk to a third from about 600 days to 200 days over the last two decades.” Now contrast this data point with the fact that almost any and every stock market expert likes to tell us that stocks are for the long term.
This also happens because an inherent action bias is built into human beings. An interesting example of this phenomenon comes from football. “In an interesting research paper, Michael Bar-Eli2 et al analysed 286 penalty kicks in top soccer leagues and championships worldwide. In a penalty kick, the ball takes approximately 0.2 seconds to reach the goal leaving no time for the goalkeeper to clearly see the direction the ball is kicked. He has to decide whether to jump to one of the sides or to stay in the centre at about the same time as the kicker chooses where to direct the ball. About 80% of penalty kicks resulted in a goal being scored, which emphasises the importance a penalty kick has to determine the outcome of a game. Interestingly, the data revealed that the optimal strategy for the goalkeeper is to stay in the centre of the goal. However, almost always they jumped left or right,” write Hattangadi and Kelkar.
Albert Edwards of Societe Generale discusses this example in greater detail. As he writes “When a goalkeeper tries to save a penalty, he almost invariably dives either to the right or the left. He will stay in the centre only 6.3% of the time. However, the penalty taker is just as likely (28.7% of the time) to blast the ball straight in front of him as to hit it to the right or left. Thus goalkeepers, to play the percentages, should stay where they are about a third of the time. They would make more saves.”
But the goalkeeper doesn’t do that. And there is a good reason for it. As Hattangadi and Kelkar write “ The goalkeepers choose action (jumping to one of the sides) rather than inaction (staying in the centre). If the goalkeeper stays in the centre and a goal is scored, it looks as if he did not do anything to stop the ball. The goalkeeper clearly feels lesser regret, and risk to his career, if he jumps on either side, even though it may result in a goal being scored.”
Investors also behave like football goalkeepers and that hurts them.
The article originally appeared on www.firstbiz.com on February 8, 2014
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)