Wall Street: Where Less is More

“Never underestimate the power of doing nothing.” – Winnie the Pooh

“Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good.” – Soren Kierkegaard


Imagine a world where you could gain more knowledge by reading fewer books, see more of the world by minimizing travel and get more fit by doing less exercise. Certainly, a world where doing less gets you more is highly inconsistent with much of our lived experience, but is just the way Wall Street Bizarro World operates. If we are to learn to live in WSBW (and we must), one of the primary lessons to be learned is to do less than we think we should.

The psychobabble term for the tendency toward dramatic effort in the face of high stakes is “action bias.” Some of the most interesting research into action bias comes to us from the wild world of sports – soccer in particular. A group of researchers examined the behavior of soccer goalies when faced with stopping a penalty kick. By examining 311 kicks, they found that goalies dove dramatically to the right or left side of the goal 94 percent of the time. The kicks themselves, however, were divided roughly equally, with a third going left, a third right and a third near the middle. This being the case, they found that goalies that stayed centered had a 60 percent chance of stopping the ball, far greater than the odds of going left or right.

So why is it that goalies are given to dramatics when relative laziness is the most sound strategy? The answer becomes more apparent when we put ourselves in the shoes…er…cleats of the goalie (especially of goalies who live in countries where failure on the pitch is punishable by death). When the game and national integrity are on the line, you want to look as though you are giving a heroic effort, probabilities be damned! You want to give your all, to “leave it all on the field” in sportspeak and staying centered has the decided visual impact of stunned complacency. Similarly, investors tasked with preserving and growing their hard earned wealth do not want to sit idly by in periods of distress, even if the research shows that this is typically the best course of action.

A team at Fidelity set out to examine the behaviors of their best performing accounts in an effort to isolate the behaviors of truly exceptional investors. What they found may shock you. When they contacted the owners of the best performing accounts, the common thread tended to be that they had forgotten about the account altogether. So much for isolating the complex behavioral traits of skilled investors! It would seem that forgetfulness might be the greatest gift at an investor’s disposal.

Another fund behemoth, Vanguard, also examined the performance of accounts that had made no changes versus those who had made tweaks. Sure enough, they found that the “no change” condition handily outperformed the tinkerers. Meir Statman cites research from Sweden showing that the heaviest traders lose 4 percent of their account value each year to trading costs and poor timing and these results are consistent across the globe. Across 19 major stock exchanges, investors who made frequent changes trailed buy and hold investors by 1.5 percentage points per year.

Perhaps the best-known study on the damaging effects of action bias also provides insight into gender-linked tendencies in trading behavior. Terrance Odean and Brad Barber, two of the fathers of behavioral finance, looked at the individual accounts of a large discount broker and found something that surprised them at the time.

The men in the study traded 45 percent more than the women, with single men out trading their female counterparts by an incredible 67 percent. Barber and Odean attribute this greater activity to overconfidence, but whatever its psychological roots, it consistently degraded returns. As a result of overactivity, the average man in the study underperformed the average woman by 1.4 percentage points per year. Worse still, single men lagged single women by 2.3 percent – an incredible drag when compounded over an investment lifetime.

The tendency of women to outperform is not only seen in retail investors, however. Female hedge fund managers have consistently and soundly thumped their male colleagues, owing largely to the patience discussed above. As LouAnn Lofton of the Motley Fool reports, “…funds managed by women have, since inception, returned an average 9.06 percent, compared to just 5.82 percent averaged by a weighted index of other hedge funds. As if that outperformance weren’t impressive enough, the group also found that during the financial panic of 2008, these women-managed funds weren’t hurt nearly as severely as the rest of the hedge fund universe, with the funds dropping 9.61 percent compared to the 19.03 percent suffered by other funds.” Boys, it would seem, will be hyperactive boys, but few could have guessed the steep financial cost of action bias. At Nocturne Capital, we believe that active management is most powerful when it's...well...not all that active. 

For more great content on the counterintuitive truths found in "Wall Street Bizarro World", please check out "The Laws of Wealth" by Nocturne founder Dr. Daniel Crosby