As career paths of professional investors go, Katherine Collins, CFA, certainly has a diverse one. Formerly a portfolio manager and head of US equity research at Fidelity Management & Research Company, Collins later attended Harvard Divinity School before launching her own biomimicry-based research firm, Honeybee Capital. In The Nature of Investing: Resilient Investment Strategies through Bio - mimicry , Collins examines how a better understanding of the natural world can lead to optimal decision making. In this interview, Collins discusses why honeybees are such good decision makers, the mechanization of the investment industry, and how preparing for uncertainty is different from preparing for risk. ... Biomimicry is the conscious emulation of natural wisdom in our products, processes, and designs. Many people think if you’re just using something from nature, that’s biomimicry. That’s not quite it. It’s the process of looking to nature as a model and a measure of our own endeavors, interwoven in every step of the process.
I shall take a holistic approach to the future of Europe. I have developed a conceptual framework, which has guided me in my decisions throughout my adult life. The framework is much broader than the financial markets; it deals with the relationship between thinking and reality. What makes that relationship so complicated is that the thoughts and actions of participants are part of the reality they have to think about. Their thinking serves a dual function: on the one hand they try to understand the world in which they live – that is the cognitive function; on the other, they want to influence the events in which they participate – that is the manipulative function. The two functions interfere with each other – I call the interference reflexivity. The cornerstone of my conceptual framework is the human uncertainty principle, which is based on the twin pillars of fallibility and reflexivity. … The human uncertainty principle has far reaching implications for scientific method. It applies only to social phenomena and thereby it separates the social sciences from the natural sciences.
AS IF a global financial-market meltdown, the deepest U.S. recession in seventy years, an existential crisis in the euro zone and upheaval in the Middle East hadn’t already created enough trouble for one decade, now the unrest and anxiety have extended to some of the world’s most attractive emerging markets. Just in the past few months, we’ve seen a rough ride for India’s currency, furious nationwide protests in Turkey and Brazil, antigovernment demonstrations in Russia, strikes and violence in South Africa, and an ominous economic slowdown in all these countries. ... Adding to the uncertainty, as the carnage and confusion in Syria remind us, is the fact that there is no longer a single country or durable alliance of countries both willing and able to exercise consistent global leadership. ... it is all the more remarkable that there’s been so little noise from China, especially since the rising giant has experienced a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, slowing growth and a show trial involving one of the country’s best-known political personalities—all in just the past few months. Given that Europe and America, China’s largest trade partners, are still struggling to recover their footing, growth is slowing across much of the once-dynamic developing world, and the pace of economic and social change within China itself is gathering speed, it’s easy to wonder if this moment is merely the calm before China’s storm. ... Don’t bet on it. ... In a world where governments can’t afford to go it alone to protect their interests, China will struggle to build durable partnerships that extend its power.
- Also: Wall Street Journal - Has China’s Debt Crisis Moment Arrived? < 5min
- Also: Financial Times - Spike in China money rates, cash-crunch fears < 5min
- Also: Bloomberg - Top China Banks Triple Debt Write-Offs as Defaults Loom < 5min
- Also: Wall Street Journal - Party’s Over for Australian Dollar < 5min
He’s resting on a couch, but this discussion—explaining how his team will rebound from a moment that most Seattle fans still can’t bring themselves to watch again—is more interrogation than psychotherapy. “If you hope I’m going to cry over the deal, I’m not,” Carroll says. “I’ve moved past that.” ... Carroll believes he made the right call. He’s never wavered there. Where some people say “worst possible decision,” he says “worst possible outcome.” That’s his distinction, and he’s sticking to it. ... the same critics who panned Carroll for throwing late against the Pats lambasted him for the decisions he made against UT. He never ignored that moment or banished it from his memory or said it didn’t hurt like hell. He confronted it. And it has fueled him. Says Carroll, “It’s much easier for me [to move forward] than most people.” ... There’s a famous story about the epiphany Carroll had around this time. He was reading a book by John Wooden that described how it took the old UCLA coach 18 years to win his first national title. And then Carroll slammed the book shut, inspired. He took the USC job in December of that year and started to write down not only what he wanted to accomplish but how he would go about it. He filled legal pads and the outsides of manila folders with so many notes that he ran out of space to write. He dissected every aspect of performance. Details that seemed small—like having players preorder for the Trojans’ omelet station in order to save a few minutes at breakfast each morning—were implemented to improve efficiency. He asked his assistant coaches to explain their vision in 30 words or less ... To Carroll, it became less about the victories and more about the process.
If everyone believes it’s a bargain, how can it not have been bought up by the crowd and had its price lifted to non-bargain status as a result? You and I know the things all investors find desirable are unlikely to represent good investment opportunities. But aren’t most bubbles driven by the belief that they do? ... Logically speaking, the bargains that everyone has come to believe in can’t still be bargains . . . but that doesn’t stop people from falling in love with them nevertheless. Yogi was right in indirectly highlighting the illogicality of “common knowledge.” As long as people’s reactions to things fail to be reasonable and measured, the spoils will go to those who are able to recognize this contradiction. ... Smart fantasy football participants understand that the goal isn’t to acquire the best players, or players with the lowest absolute price tags, but players whose “salaries” understate their merit – those who are underpriced relative to their potential and might amass more points in the next game than the cost to draft them reflects. Likewise, smart investors know the goal isn’t to find the best companies, or stocks with the lowest absolute dollar prices or p/e ratios, but the ones whose potential isn’t fully reflected in their price. In both of these competitive arenas, the prize goes to those who see value others miss. ... rather than judge a decision solely on the basis of the outcome, you have to consider (a) the quality of the process that led to the decision, (b) the a priori probability that the decision would work (which is very different from the question of whether it did work), (c) the other decisions that could have been made, (d) all of the events that reasonably could have unfolded, and thus (e) which of the decisions had the highest probability of success.
Intelligence quotient (IQ) and rationality quotient (RQ) are distinct. Think of IQ as the horsepower of an engine and RQ as the output. ... We share the results of a classic test of calibration, which is an important facet of rationality. Well calibrated people know what they know and know what they don’t know. ... Consistent with past research, we find that participants overestimate their accuracy as their subjective probability estimates tend to be higher than the actual percent correct. ... Investors and executives can improve their rationality by keeping score, asking about others, using base rates, and updating probabilities. ... A large-scale forecasting project has shown that the best forecasters use inductive and numerical reasoning, have cognitive control and a growth mindset, and are open-minded and effective working as part of a team.
Hard realities in these three fields are inconvenient for vested interests and because the day of reckoning can always be seen as “later,” politicians can always find a way to postpone necessary actions, as can we all: “Because markets are efficient, these high prices must be reflecting the remarkable potential of the internet”; “the U.S. housing market largely reflects a strong U.S. economy”; “the climate has always changed”; “how could mere mortals change something as immense as the weather”; “we have nearly infinite resources, it is only a question of price”; “the infinite capacity of the human brain will always solve our problems.” ... Having realized the seriousness of this bias over the last few decades, I have noticed how hard it is to effectively pass on a warning for the same reason: No one wants to hear this bad news. So a while ago I came up with a list of propositions that are widely accepted by an educated business audience. They are widely accepted but totally wrong. It is my attempt to bring home how extreme is our preference for good news over accurate news. When you have run through this list you may be a little more aware of how dangerous our wishful thinking can be in investing and in the much more important fields of resource (especially food) limitations and the potentially life-threatening risks of climate damage. Wishful thinking and denial of unpleasant facts are simply not survival characteristics.
This memo is my attempt to send the markets to the psychiatrist’s couch, and an exploration of what might be learned there. ... One of the most notable behavioral traits among investors is their tendency to overlook negatives or understate their significance for a while, and then eventually to capitulate and overreact to them on the downside. ... “Everyone knew” for years that the Chinese economy had been overstimulated with cheap financing, and that this had led to excessive investment in fixed assets. … One of the most significant factors keeping investors from reaching appropriate conclusions is their tendency to assess the world with emotionalism rather than objectivity. Their failings take two primary forms: selective perception and skewed interpretation. ... The bottom line is that investor psychology rarely gives equal weight to both favorable and unfavorable developments. Likewise, investors’ interpretation of events is usually biased by their emotional reaction to whatever is going on at the moment. ... in the real world, things generally fluctuate between “pretty good” and “not so hot.” But in the world of investing, perception often swings from “flawless” to “hopeless.” ... There is a general sense among my colleagues that investors have gone from evaluating securities based on the attractiveness of their yield (with company fundamentals viewed optimistically) to judging them on the basis of the likely recovery in a restructuring (with fundamentals viewed pessimistically).
It’s a story that has become a part of business folklore in China. In 1985, Zhang Ruimin, the young general manager of the loss-making Qingdao Refrigerator Plant, decided it was time to turn things around. He got his factory workers to smash 76 defective refrigerators with sledgehammers. To drive the point home—that there would be no tolerance for low quality—he delivered the first blow himself. ... This moment marked a significant turning point in the history of Qingdao Refrigerator Plant (now known as Haier), so much so that the sledgehammer is now housed in the company’s in-house corporate museum. Three decades later, Haier is the world’s largest white goods manufacturer and boasts cutting edge innovation. ... None of this would have been possible without CEO Zhang Ruimin at the helm. He led the company through several path-breaking business model changes, which helped the company build a strong brand, grow both organically and through acquisitions, globalize and evolve a business model where the company “gets close to the customer”. The beauty of it is that he forced the company to change even before competition or technology made it imperative that it did so. ... Zhang is now leading the company through yet another transformation. He is, in essence, ‘breaking up’ the company and throwing rigid organizational structures and processes out of the window. The enterprise will, in effect, become an investment platform and the departments and divisions will be like entrepreneurial teams, which he calls “micro-enterprises”.
As self-help workshops go, Applied Rationality’s is not especially accessible. The center’s three founders — Julia Galef, Anna Salamon and Smith — all have backgrounds in science or math or both, and their curriculum draws heavily from behavioral economics. Over the course of the weekend, I heard instructors invoke both hyperbolic discounting (a mathematical model of how people undervalue long-term rewards) and prospect theory (developed by the behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky to capture how people inaccurately weigh risky probabilities). But the premise of the workshop is simple: Our minds, cobbled together over millenniums by that lazy craftsman, evolution, are riddled with bad mental habits. ... Some of these problems are byproducts of our brain’s reward system. ... logical errors may be easy to spot in others, the group says, they’re often harder to see in ourselves. The workshop promised to give participants the tools to address these flaws, which, it hinted, are almost certainly worse than we realize. ... Most self-help appeals to us because it promises real change without much real effort, a sort of fad diet for the psyche. ... CFAR’s focus on science and on tiresome levels of practice can seem almost radical. It has also generated a rare level of interest among data-driven tech people and entrepreneurs who see personal development as just another optimization problem, if a uniquely central one. Yet, while CFAR’s methods are unusual, its aspirational promise — that a better version of ourselves is within reach — is distinctly familiar. The center may emphasize the benefits that will come to those who master the techniques of rational thought, like improved motivation and a more organized inbox, but it also suggests that the real reward will be far greater, enabling users to be more intellectually dynamic and nimble. ... CFAR’s original mandate was to give researchers the mental tools to overcome their unconscious assumptions. ... What makes CFAR novel is its effort to use those same principles to fix personal problems: to break frustrating habits, recognize self-defeating cycles and relentlessly interrogate our own wishful inclinations and avoidant instincts.
Capital allocation is a senior management team’s most fundamental responsibility. The problem is that many CEOs don’t know how to allocate capital effectively. The objective of capital allocation is to build long-term value per share. ... Capital allocation is always important but is especially pertinent today because return on invested capital is high , growth is modest , and corporate balance sheets in the U.S. have substantial cash. ... Internal financing represented almost 90 percent of the source of total capital for U.S. companies from 1980-2013. ... M&A, capital expenditures, and R&D are the largest uses of capital for operations , and companies now spend more on buybacks than dividends. ... This report discusses each use of capital, shows how to analyze that use, reviews the academic findings, and offers a near-term outlook. ... We provide a framework for assessing a company’s capital allocation skills, which includes examining past behaviors, understanding incentives, and considering the five principles of capital allocation.
Five Principles of Capital Allocation:
1. Zero - based capital allocation
2. Fund strategies, not projects
3. No capital rationing
4. Zero tolerance for bad growth
5. Know the value of assets, and be ready to take action to create value
Should we make decisions based on intuition and emotion, or should we make decisions more rationally, with data, analytics, and numbers? The best process for making decisions under pressure is to use the data and numbers to inform our intuition. In addition, leaders must recognize and avoid falling prey to a number of mind tricks and biases. Power dynamics can also lead to poor decisions, and leaders do best to pursue an inquiry-based—rather than advocacy-based—approach. ... When making decisions under pressure, there are four tensions. Any decision in an organization generally has an ethical issue, a strategic issue, a financial issue, and a legal issue. Sometimes, there is tension among those issues. What makes perfect sense strategically might not make sense legally, or what makes the best sense financially might not make sense ethically. Part of the decision-making process is having the ability to recognize and manage the fundamental tensions that exist in most of the decisions we face. ... The way to do that is by answering three questions. First, how do I motivate and encourage the people and the organization to be aligned with what we are trying to achieve? Second, operationally, when we are under threat, how do I make sure that the business will be able to continue during these threatening circumstances? Third, how do I communicate the decision that I am about to make?
The sciences have grown steadily bolder in their claim that all human behavior can be explained through the clockwork laws of cause and effect. This shift in perception is the continuation of an intellectual revolution that began about 150 years ago, when Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species. Shortly after Darwin put forth his theory of evolution, his cousin Sir Francis Galton began to draw out the implications: If we have evolved, then mental faculties like intelligence must be hereditary. But we use those faculties—which some people have to a greater degree than others—to make decisions. So our ability to choose our fate is not free, but depends on our biological inheritance. ... The 20th-century nature-nurture debate prepared us to think of ourselves as shaped by influences beyond our control. But it left some room, at least in the popular imagination, for the possibility that we could overcome our circumstances or our genes to become the author of our own destiny. The challenge posed by neuroscience is more radical: It describes the brain as a physical system like any other, and suggests that we no more will it to operate in a particular way than we will our heart to beat. ... If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy. ... What is new, though, is the spread of free-will skepticism beyond the laboratories and into the mainstream. ... When people stop believing they are free agents, they stop seeing themselves as blameworthy for their actions.
- Also: Aeon - Getting smarter 5-15min
Wisdom of crowds is an old concept. It goes back to Ancient Greek and, later, Enlightenment thinkers who argued that democracy is not just a nice idea, but a mathematically proven way to make good decisions. Even a citizenry of knaves collectively outperforms the shrewdest monarch, according to this proposition. What the knaves lack in personal knowledge, they make up for in diversity. In the 1990s, crowd wisdom became a pop-culture obsession, providing a rationale for wikis, crowdsourcing, prediction markets and popularity-based search algorithms. ... That endorsement came with a big caveat, however: even proponents admitted that crowds are as apt to be witless as well as wise. The good democrats of Athens marched into a ruinous war with Sparta. French Revolutionary mobs killed the Enlightenment. In the years leading up to 2008, the herd of Wall Street forgot the most basic principles of risk management. Then there was my little Skittles contest. It was precisely the type of problem that crowds are supposed to do well on: a quiet pooling of diverse and independent assessments, without any group discussion that a single person might dominate. Nevertheless, my crowd failed.
Defaults are the settings that come out of the box, the selections you make on your computer by hitting enter, the assumptions that people make unless you object, the options easily available to you because you haven’t changed them. ... They might not seem like much, but defaults (and their designers) hold immense power – they make decisions for us that we’re not even aware of making. Consider the fact that most people never change the factory settings on their computer, the default ringtone on their phones, or the default temperature in their fridge. Someone, somewhere, decided what those defaults should be – and it probably wasn’t you. ... What if I told you there was one simple change you could make in a school cafeteria to get children to eat more salad? It doesn’t cost anything, force anyone to eat anything they don’t want, and it takes only a few minutes to fix. And it happened in real life: a middle school in New York moved their salad bar away from its default location against a wall and put it smack in the middle of the room (and prominently in front of the two cash registers, as seen in the diagram below). Salad sales more than tripled.
Professionals in many organizations are assigned arbitrarily to cases: appraisers in credit-rating agencies, physicians in emergency rooms, underwriters of loans and insurance, and others. Organizations expect consistency from these professionals: Identical cases should be treated similarly, if not identically. The problem is that humans are unreliable decision makers; their judgments are strongly influenced by irrelevant factors, such as their current mood, the time since their last meal, and the weather. We call the chance variability of judgments noise. It is an invisible tax on the bottom line of many companies. ... The prevalence of noise has been demonstrated in several studies. Academic researchers have repeatedly confirmed that professionals often contradict their own prior judgments when given the same data on different occasions. ... The unavoidable conclusion is that professionals often make decisions that deviate significantly from those of their peers, from their own prior decisions, and from rules that they themselves claim to follow. ... It has long been known that predictions and decisions generated by simple statistical algorithms are often more accurate than those made by experts, even when the experts have access to more information than the formulas use. It is less well known that the key advantage of algorithms is that they are noise-free: Unlike humans, a formula will always return the same output for any given input. Superior consistency allows even simple and imperfect algorithms to achieve greater accuracy than human professionals. ... One reason the problem of noise is invisible is that people do not go through life imagining plausible alternatives to every judgment they make. ... The bottom line here is that if you plan to use an algorithm to reduce noise, you need not wait for outcome data. You can reap most of the benefits by using common sense to select variables and the simplest possible rule to combine them.
This problem has a name: the paradox of automation. It applies in a wide variety of contexts, from the operators of nuclear power stations to the crew of cruise ships, from the simple fact that we can no longer remember phone numbers because we have them all stored in our mobile phones, to the way we now struggle with mental arithmetic because we are surrounded by electronic calculators. The better the automatic systems, the more out-of-practice human operators will be, and the more extreme the situations they will have to face. ... The paradox of automation, then, has three strands to it. First, automatic systems accommodate incompetence by being easy to operate and by automatically correcting mistakes. Because of this, an inexpert operator can function for a long time before his lack of skill becomes apparent – his incompetence is a hidden weakness that can persist almost indefinitely. Second, even if operators are expert, automatic systems erode their skills by removing the need for practice. Third, automatic systems tend to fail either in unusual situations or in ways that produce unusual situations, requiring a particularly skilful response. A more capable and reliable automatic system makes the situation worse. ... The rarer the exception gets, as with fly-by-wire, the less gracefully we are likely to deal with it. We assume that the computer is always right, and when someone says the computer made a mistake, we assume they are wrong or lying. ... For all the power and the genuine usefulness of data, perhaps we have not yet acknowledged how imperfectly a tidy database maps on to a messy world. We fail to see that a computer that is a hundred times more accurate than a human, and a million times faster, will make 10,000 times as many mistakes. ... If you occasionally need human skill at short notice to navigate a hugely messy situation, it may make sense to artificially create smaller messes, just to keep people on their toes.
I’m sure some of the criticism of people who claim to be using data to find knowledge, and to exploit inefficiencies in their industries, has some truth to it. But whatever it is in the human psyche that the Oakland A’s exploited for profit—this hunger for an expert who knows things with certainty, even when certainty is not possible—has a talent for hanging around. ... How did this pair of Israeli psychologists come to have so much to say about these matters of the human mind that they more or less anticipated a book about American baseball written decades in the future? What possessed two guys in the Middle East to sit down and figure out what the mind was doing when it tried to judge a baseball player, or an investment, or a presidential candidate? And how on earth does a psychologist win a Nobel Prize in economics? ... Amos was now what people referred to, a bit confusingly, as a “mathematical psychologist.” Non-mathematical psychologists, like Danny, quietly viewed much of mathematical psychology as a series of pointless exercises conducted by people who were using their ability to do math as camouflage for how little of psychological interest they had to say. ... students who once wondered why the two brightest stars of Hebrew University kept their distance from each other now wondered how two so radically different personalities could find common ground, much less become soulmates. ... Danny was always sure he was wrong. Amos was always sure he was right. Amos was the life of every party; Danny didn’t go to the parties. ... Both were grandsons of Eastern European rabbis, for a start. Both were explicitly interested in how people functioned when they were in a “normal” unemotional state. Both wanted to do science. Both wanted to search for simple, powerful truths.
Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move ... experiments confirmed the 19th-century notion of willpower being like a muscle that was fatigued with use, a force that could be conserved by avoiding temptation. ... Any decision, whether it’s what pants to buy or whether to start a war, can be broken down into what psychologists call the Rubicon model of action phases, in honor of the river that separated Italy from the Roman province of Gaul.
The gift for talent-spotting is mysterious, highly prized and celebrated. We love to hear stories about the baseball coach who can spot the raw ability of an erratic young pitcher, the boss who sees potential in the guy in the post room, the director who picks a soloist out of the chorus line. Talent shows are a staple of the TV schedules. We like to believe that certain people – sometimes ourselves – can just sense when a person has something special. But there is another method of spotting talent which doesn’t rely on hunches. In place of intuition, it offers data and analysis. Rather than relying on the gut, it invites us to use our heads. It tends not to make for such romantic stories, but it is effective – which is why, despite our affection, the hunch is everywhere in retreat. ... The low level of the validity ceiling makes sense when you think about the web of interacting forces – individual ability, organisational culture, social and economic change, pure luck – involved in any success or failure. Weather forecasters using vast databases can say with confidence if it’s going to rain only a few days in advance. Predicting the outcome of human endeavour is even more complex – imagine if clouds had feelings – yet we desperately want to believe our hunches can tell us what will happen in a year or five years’ time.