A few days ago, Abnormal Returns raised the interesting question of whether it is more important to be right or to make money. The article cited past work, correctly noted that one could be dollar positive while losing in most cases, and showed behavioral finance literature on the concept of sticking with a thesis, even when it is losing.
This was a great article. As a front-line investment manager, we know that it is a crucial factor in the thinking of many individual investors, the people we are trying to help.
As an aside, we congratulate Tadas on his new business relationship, and wish him the greatest success. He has provided an extremely valuable service to investors and deserves some recognition and compensation.
An important bonus from his new approach is that we can now hope to get more such articles -- provocative questions, actually stimulating the rest of us to think and to respond.
The Merkel Response
Another of our featured sites, The Aleph Blog, took a different perspective. Here is how David Merkel responded:
I’m going to take the other side of this one. This is a bear/choppy market argument. During a sustained bull market, being right makes lots of money.
When I choose stocks, I do all that I can to have the odds tipped in my favor — industry analysis, earnings quality analysis, valuation analysis, balance sheet analysis, free cash flow use, and even a review of the anomalies like momentum, volatility, balance sheet growth, etc.
It’s not perfect, but I typically have 70% winners, and my winners are larger than my losers. Being right helps make money… does anyone doubt that? But hubris destroys.
Does that mean I give up my risk control disciplines? No. I get things wrong, and when I am wrong, I cut my losses. Every 20% move down requires a review — if the thesis is intact, I buy enough to rebalance. If not, I sell.
Also, my methods continually improve my portfolio, selling things with less potential to buy things with greater potential.
There was a lively response to the original article, with many good ideas. It is a timely and complicated subject.
We often approach questions like this by stepping away from the instant question, looking at extreme examples from our own experience. Let us take companies that are about to go bankrupt.
Experts know that the common stocks in these companies generally go to zero. The common has no value, since the bankruptcy forms NewCo and the bondholders get equity.
This is very difficult to explain to investors. The sentiment of the market often is focused on the general business of the company -- often with good potential -- rather than the economic fundamentals of the stock.
We have had several cases where investors wanted to buy a penny stock, about to go into bankruptcy. We warned that the stock was worthless.
In several of these cases, all high volatility situations, the stock doubled after our advice. Eventually , it went to zero.
Did we give poor advice? Our experience and knowledge -- an understanding of the process -- was correct. Anyone following the advice would have eventually been proven right. Meanwhile, major gains were missed.
Could anyone predict that the stock of a bankrupt company would double, say from 75 cents to a dollar fifty? Perhaps, but that is not our method.
The story of being right versus winning is far more complicated. The emphasis on last year -- a single point in history -- has a special significance since the results were so dramatic.
We plan to revisit that question. For now we wish to highlight a single point:
What is the long run?
A casino has a small edge, but makes money because there are many relevant bets. It is more difficult for the individual investor. The edge might be significant, but the occasions for testing it are smaller in number. When does one see the "long run?"
Put another way, how many major financial crises have there been? What constitutes a good record?
There is an obvious advantage to methods that get quickly into the long run. Is there a way for the individual investor to participate in this approach, controlling risk, while getting good returns?
More examples and discussion to come.....