2013/08/28

Stop confusing clever with lucky

I get very annoyed when I see idiotic journalism, such as this article (admittedly Business Insider does not exactly maintain high standards of journalism, but in this case they just copied CNBC). To recap: one 22-year old kid put all his savings into Tesla shares (and later options on Tesla shares) and today has made quite a hefty profit. But when his friends told him he was crazy, they were right.

It is stupid to present this kid’s outstanding luck as success. He was not successful – he was blindly, stupidly, and ignorantly lucky. There was absolutely no way of knowing that Tesla would outshine all the other technology companies. There must be thousands of investors who have similarly bet heavily in some particular stock and found themselves losing everything. I am, of course, not saying anything new here. Taleb argued just these lines in his book Fooled by Randomness, which everyone should read.
But we don’t hear about the investors who lose everything. We only hear about the ones who strike it lucky. Because we think they are special, that they had some special foresight. Mostly they were just lucky.

I admit that markets are not efficient. Some people may have the ability, through research, to increase their chances of doing well. Most active managers think they have this ability (and all of them claim to have it). But only the stupid ones would invest most of their capital in one stock. There is too much room for error.

Warren Buffett is often cited as an example of an investor that managed to beat the market with his foresight, and this may be true (considering his long track record). But he was also very lucky. When he was just starting he invested 75% of his worth in one stock, GEICO, which paid off handsomely. This was after just one conversation with an executive there (one who became CEO shortly afterward). Buffett was extremely lucky. If that single investment had not paid off (and how do you really know it will pay off after speaking to one person, who can’t control the direction of the entire company?) we would never have heard the name Buffett.

Taking stupid risks is fine if you have a safety net (for instance rich parents), because then you’re not really putting all your eggs in one basket. For the rest of us: ignore the media when it tells you people who risked everything were smart. They were lucky.

References

  • Buffett, W. (2010). Letter to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. October. Retrieved from http://www.berkshirehathaway.com/letters/2010ltr.pdf
  • Lebeau, P. (2013). College Student Put His Life Savings Into Tesla, Made A Killing. Business Insider. Retrieved August 28, 2013, from http://www.businessinsider.com/college-student-put-his-life-savings-into-tesla-made-a-killing-2013-8
  • Taleb, N. N. (2007). Fooled by Randomness (2nd ed.). Penguin.

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