The confidence trick

Daniel Kahneman writes: We are prone to think that the world is more regular and predictable than it really is, because our memory automatically and continuously maintains a story about what is going on, and because the rules of memory tend to make that story as coherent as possible and to suppress alternatives. Fast thinking is not prone to doubt.

The confidence we experience as we make a judgment is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that it is right. Confidence is a feeling, one determined mostly by the coherence of the story and by the ease with which it comes to mind, even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable. The bias toward coherence favors overconfidence. An individual who expresses high confidence probably has a good story, which may or may not be true…

When a compelling impression of a particular event clashes with general knowledge, the impression commonly prevails… The confidence you will experience in your future judgments will not be diminished by what you just read, even if you believe every word.

I first visited a Wall Street firm in 1984. I was there with my longtime collaborator Amos Tversky, who died in 1996, and our friend Richard Thaler, now a guru of behavioral economics. Our host, a senior investment manager, had invited us to discuss the role of judgment biases in investing. I knew so little about finance at the time that I had no idea what to ask him, but I remember one exchange. “When you sell a stock,” I asked him, “who buys it?” He answered with a wave in the vague direction of the window, indicating that he expected the buyer to be someone else very much like him. That was odd: because most buyers and sellers know that they have the same information as one another, what made one person buy and the other sell? Buyers think the price is too low and likely to rise; sellers think the price is high and likely to drop. The puzzle is why buyers and sellers alike think that the current price is wrong.

Most people in the investment business have read Burton Malkiel’s wonderful book “A Random Walk Down Wall Street.” Malkiel’s central idea is that a stock’s price incorporates all the available knowledge about the value of the company and the best predictions about the future of the stock. If some people believe that the price of a stock will be higher tomorrow, they will buy more of it today. This, in turn, will cause its price to rise. If all assets in a market are correctly priced, no one can expect either to gain or to lose by trading.

We now know, however, that the theory is not quite right. Many individual investors lose consistently by trading, an achievement that a dart-throwing chimp could not match. The first demonstration of this startling conclusion was put forward by Terry Odean, a former student of mine who is now a finance professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Odean analyzed the trading records of 10,000 brokerage accounts of individual investors over a seven-year period, allowing him to identify all instances in which an investor sold one stock and soon afterward bought another stock. By these actions the investor revealed that he (most of the investors were men) had a definite idea about the future of two stocks: he expected the stock that he bought to do better than the one he sold.

To determine whether those appraisals were well founded, Odean compared the returns of the two stocks over the following year. The results were unequivocally bad. On average, the shares investors sold did better than those they bought, by a very substantial margin: 3.3 percentage points per year, in addition to the significant costs of executing the trades. Some individuals did much better, others did much worse, but the large majority of individual investors would have done better by taking a nap rather than by acting on their ideas. In a paper titled “Trading Is Hazardous to Your Wealth,” Odean and his colleague Brad Barber showed that, on average, the most active traders had the poorest results, while those who traded the least earned the highest returns. In another paper, “Boys Will Be Boys,” they reported that men act on their useless ideas significantly more often than women do, and that as a result women achieve better investment results than men.

Of course, there is always someone on the other side of a transaction; in general, it’s a financial institution or professional investor, ready to take advantage of the mistakes that individual traders make. Further research by Barber and Odean has shed light on these mistakes. Individual investors like to lock in their gains; they sell “winners,” stocks whose prices have gone up, and they hang on to their losers. Unfortunately for them, in the short run going forward recent winners tend to do better than recent losers, so individuals sell the wrong stocks. They also buy the wrong stocks. Individual investors predictably flock to stocks in companies that are in the news. Professional investors are more selective in responding to news. These findings provide some justification for the label of “smart money” that finance professionals apply to themselves.

Although professionals are able to extract a considerable amount of wealth from amateurs, few stock pickers, if any, have the skill needed to beat the market consistently, year after year. The diagnostic for the existence of any skill is the consistency of individual differences in achievement. The logic is simple: if individual differences in any one year are due entirely to luck, the ranking of investors and funds will vary erratically and the year-to-year correlation will be zero. Where there is skill, however, the rankings will be more stable. The persistence of individual differences is the measure by which we confirm the existence of skill among golfers, orthodontists or speedy toll collectors on the turnpike.

Mutual funds are run by highly experienced and hard-working professionals who buy and sell stocks to achieve the best possible results for their clients. Nevertheless, the evidence from more than 50 years of research is conclusive: for a large majority of fund managers, the selection of stocks is more like rolling dice than like playing poker. At least two out of every three mutual funds underperform the overall market in any given year.

More important, the year-to-year correlation among the outcomes of mutual funds is very small, barely different from zero. The funds that were successful in any given year were mostly lucky; they had a good roll of the dice. There is general agreement among researchers that this is true for nearly all stock pickers, whether they know it or not — and most do not. The subjective experience of traders is that they are making sensible, educated guesses in a situation of great uncertainty. In highly efficient markets, however, educated guesses are not more accurate than blind guesses.

Daniel Kahneman is emeritus professor of psychology and of public affairs at Princeton University and a winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics. This article is adapted from his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” out this month from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Facebooktwitterrss
Facebooktwittermail