Smarter Than The Market?

So I attended Invest Fair 2012 this weekend, which was pretty much a marketplace of financial service providers, brokers, insurance companies, and the occasional weird individual trying to tout his own “proprietary” trading system. It was exactly like a marketplace, the kind you’d find at your local heartland HDB estate, with energetic sweaty speakers gesturing at candlestick charts and yelling to crowds of wide-eyed middle aged folks, craning their necks and shoving to get a glimpse of the Secret Millionaire Trading Strategy to Make You Rich. You would’ve thought that the speaker was selling fish, or vacuum cleaners, or a Ginzu Knife, instead of a “highly sophisticated automated trading system”.

Interestingly enough, I didn’t see anyone talk about passive indexing in the 4 hours I was there. There was a brief mention of it in one talk, but the speaker put it way down below in the investing hierarchy. Speaker: “If you don’t have enough time at all, and you ONLY want the market return, you can opt to do passive indexing. That will get you between 7%-11% a year. If you have a bit more time, you can do value investing and momentum investing, which can give you up to 20% a year. But the most profitable of all, the style that I use, is to invest in small caps. That will give you up to 30% a year, but you have to stomach a lot more volatility.”

Now, 30% a year sounds like a helluva attractive option, doesn’t it? Hell, you could double your money in less than 3 years! But let’s think about this for a second.

Why you’re not likely to be smarter than the market

If you make a 30% return in the market, there must be someone else (or a bunch of other people) on the other side of that trade who lost 30%. Every time you buy a stock, there is someone on the other side selling it to you. And every time you sell, there is someone on the other end buying it from you. Every time you win, someone else loses, and every time you lose, someone else wins. Lots of people forget that the stock market is a zero sum game, and you are playing against other people. Now, say you bought a fancy trading strategy at the investment fair and started making 30% a year consistently. This means that you would be consistently beating the majority of the other players in the market, ie: you would consistently be in the “winning” half of the market.

Now think about who the other players are. First, there are the institutional fund managers and mutual fund managers with billions of dollars under their control and have the power to move the market every time they trade. Then, there are the brokers and the flow traders who have a first-hand view of the order books and could front-run you without you even realizing. There are also the hedge fund managers, who hire Nobel Prize winners to develop algorithmic trading strategies for them. There are people like Warren Buffet, whose sheer influence and ownership of certain companies gives them access to information that no one else could possibly access. And then there are the high frequency traders, whose machines execute millions of trades a second. And then there’s you, with your $500 trading system you bought from Invest Fair 2012, and your $99 book on technical analysis. Now, who’s more likely to consistently be on the winning side of the market?

I’m not saying that you’re stupid. In fact, it’s very likely that some of you reading this would have made some money trading some fanciful strategy so far. All I’m saying is that by definition, the majority of you will be painfully average in your ability to beat the market. And once you add the professionals to the mix, it’s more than likely that you, the average retail trader/investor, are likely to be in the losing end of the market if you’re going to play against them. Most of us would like to think that we’re smarter than average – a behavioral bias of overconfidence that makes us think that somehow, we’re that one special person blessed with gifted intelligence and luck that will let us triumph over everyone else. But by definition, that cannot be true for most people, including people like you and me.

So let’s not kid ourselves that we can be consistently smarter than the market. The market consists hundreds of thousands of other participants, some of who are much, much, much smarter than you are. If one or two screw up, there are plenty more to take their place.

Embracing Average

Okay this all sounds very depressing, and it sounds like we should just all get out from the investment game altogether and stuff our money in pillow cases. But wait, there’s hope! Let’s think about things a little differently – let’s entertain the thought that maybe being average is a good thing.

Here’s why – we all know that on average, the market increases by about 8% a year. This 8% is the result of aggregating the entire market’s gains and losses: the mutual funds raking in 20%, the hedge funds blowing up, a retail investor losing everything, and your uncle who got lucky and jumped into tech stocks which rose by 40% in 3 months. Add them all up together, and it averages out to about 8% a year. (it works out to 8% a year, not 0%, because there is a strong upward bias in the market, helped by the fact that businesses in the market grow their earnings as time passes) So when you buy the market and hold it forever, you’ll experience some good years with double-digit returns, and some bad years with scary negative returns, but on average, you’ll be hitting approximately 8% a year.

Honestly, how many of you have been able to consistently rake in 8% a year? I’m willing to bet that the majority of retail investors won’t even come close to this figure. So why bother spending money on trading systems, or financial adviser fees, or commissions, just to earn less than the market return? Do yourself a favor and practice passive indexing – you’re pretty much guaranteed to beat the majority of the masses out there, the same ones who cluelessly invest in small caps (or other things) because they want to earn 30% a year, and think that they’re smarter than everyone else.

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