Posts filed under “Apprenticed Investor”

6 Billion Errors Per Day, Minimum

A few weeks ago, I mentioned we were 50% long, 50% cash (up from 100% cash in May), and were planning on selling into any rallies. Since then, we have sold some winners outright (PWER), cut back other positions, and been stopped out completely of losers; win some, lose some. We are now approximately ~85% cash.

The reason I bring this up was to share with you two reactions I got when describing these recent trades and cash holdings. I had two separate conversations in July — one with a well known Trader, the other with a Fund Manager (known in the industry, but not a household name) — about our posture prior to yesterday’s drop.

The two responses were polar opposites, 180 degree apart.

The trader respected the discipline of honoring stop losses. Good traders know that opportunistic speculation is a process. Ignore any one single outcome, focus on the methodology that can consistently avoid catastrophic losses, manage risk, preserve capital. A good process can be replicated, a random spin of the wheel cannot.

The fund manager, who was having a decent year being long high vol names (at least before Wednesday), was having none of it. “Stops are for losers” is a quote I shall long remember (and email him after he blows up). Apparently, real men have the courage of their convictions.

These two conversations were in my mind when I stumbled across a post at the Less Wrong blog; its a site dedicated to “refining the art of human rationality.” One of the things we humans do is come up with short cuts and heuristics — experience-based techniques that help in problem solving, but often contain unwarranted assumptions.

The post Five-minute rationality techniques mentioned a quote we are all familiar with: “It takes a big man to admit he’s wrong.”

Stop to consider that quote for just a minute, and you will realize how silly it is. If we are honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that all of us are wrong about something every single day. The daily details of life are filled with our own errors: What will happen today, the best route to take to work, anticipating a colleagues reaction to something, the weather, etc.

Investors are just as wrong just as often, including errors on the really big things: An assumption we made about a major issue, a small but crucial fact we misremember, a forecast we made 6 months ago — just some of many things we believed that were all wrong. Consensus for earnings, econokkmic reports, how the markets behave. Expectations are rarely made, consensus is frequently off. We are habitually, regularly, predictably wrong about nearly everything.

Rather than fight our foibles, people should admit to themselves that this error stream is real. Why not repair the errors of our ways as soon as we discover them?

I have noticed over the years the difficulty some investors have in cutting losses, admitting an error, and moving on. Way back in 2005, I wrote a piece advising people that they should Expect to Be Wrong (originally published 04/05/05). In it, I noted that “I am rather frequently — and on occasion, quite spectacularly — wrong.” However, if we expect to be wrong, then there should be little or no ego tied up in admitting the error, honoring the stop loss, then selling out the loser — and preserving capital.

Which brings us back to the hubris of the aforementioned fund manager. I see three error related problems he is suffering from:

1) He is focused on short term outcomes, rather than longer term processes;
2) He does not believe he is wrong, or apparently, deluded himself into thinking he cannot be wrong;
3) He is unaware of his own meta-error.

This is a recipe for investing disaster. We humans make 6 billion errors per day, at the very least. The biggest one is not acknowledging them . . .


BTW, the headline of this post is wrong. There are 6.69 billion people on earth; we should reach 7B until sometime in 2011. The management apologizes for the error . . .


2009 Investing Mea Culpas (January 7th, 2010)

How Blind Are We to Our Own Shortcomings? (December 26th, 2005)

The Zen of Trading (June 1, 2005)

Category: Apprenticed Investor, Data Analysis, Psychology

The Zen of Trading

This was originally published at The on June 1, 2005 — so this is a 5 year anniversary of sorts.

Feedback appreciated


So far the Apprenticed Investor series has discussed a lot of don’ts. Don’t do this, don’t do that; avoid talking to these kinds of traders; don’t say or think these kinds of things.

Well, it’s time to shift gears, and since trading is an active enterprise, I’ll discuss some things you should do. I plan to expand on these ideas significantly in future episodes.

Taken together, the following 10 rules will not only help you with the philosophical grounding necessary for thoughtful — and successful — investing, they will help you avoid some of the more common mistakes made by investors and traders early in their careers.

This is the “Zen of Trading;” It is more than an overview — it’s an investment philosophy that can help you develop an investing framework of your own.

1. Have a Comprehensive Plan: Whether you are an investor or active trader, you must have a plan. Too many investors have no strategy at all — they merely react to each twitch of the market on the fly. If you fail to plan, goes the saying, then you plan to fail.
Consider how Roger Clemens approaches a game. He studies his opponent, constructs his game plan and goes to work.

Investors should write up a business plan, as if they were asking a Venture Capitalist for start-up money; just because you are the angel investor doesn’t mean you should skip the planning stages.

2. Expect to Be Wrong: We’ve discussed this previously, but it is such a key aspect of successful investing that it bears repeating. You will be wrong, you will be wrong often and, occasionally, you will be spectacularly wrong.
Michael Jordan has a fabulous perspective on the subject: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Jordan was the greatest ball player of all time, and not only because of his superb physical skills: He understood the nature and importance of failure, and placed it appropriately within a larger framework of the game.

The best investors have no ego tied up in a trade. Those who refuse to recognize the simple truism of “being wrong often” end up giving away unacceptable amounts of capital. Stubborn pride and lack of risk management allow egotists to stay in stocks down 30%, 40% or 50% — or worse.

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Category: Apprenticed Investor

Lessons for the Apprenticed Investor

Hey, I managed to track down all of the Apprenticed Investor series from the Some of these really stand the test of time: In this special series of articles from RealMoney contributor and market strategist Barry Ritholtz, learn about becoming a better investor — not just a better stock picker, but someone who knows…Read More

Category: Apprenticed Investor

Overestimation and Cognitive Error

I love this quote: “Overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.” I have to work that into my presentation today: “unfortunately. their…Read More

Category: Apprenticed Investor, Psychology

Using Stops in Volatile Markets

This is a reprint from 2003, originally published at MarketWatch:


NEW YORK (CBS.MW) — The Duke of Wellington once observed: “What makes a great general? To know when to retreat; and to dare to do it.”

The same thinking applies to investors. They must understand when to “retreat,” and have the self-discipline to do so. This is especially true in the present environment. The pre-war “spike” last month shows why. Eight straight up days, with gains of more than 13 percent, makes it too easy to become complacent and forget about risk management.

Once the market lurched into rally mode, I’ll bet many investors let their emotions get the better of them. Ask yourself these questions: Did the best week in over 20 years suck you in without a coherent exit strategy? That stupendous run was followed by the single worst day in over a year. Was it only then you discovered that you had no contingency plan?

Perhaps, then, its time you developed a risk management strategy – including a sell discipline.

A Strategy for Every Market

Bulls and bears alike need to preserve capital and manage risk. These tactics are crucial regardless of whether the market is crashing or rallying, whether there’s a war on or the economy is in recession.

Take the present environment. From studying market history, I believe that major crashes (think 1929 and 1972-74) are followed by years of range bound trading. Until I see otherwise, I expect growth to be anemic, deficits to keep increasing, and business spending and hiring to remain weak. There’s still too much capacity, too much debt, and the increasing possibility of deflation. Despite this, stocks are not at historically cheap valuations. On the bright side, interest rates are at 40-year lows, and that makes present equity valuations a bit more sufferable.

These crosscurrents make it all the more imperative to have a reliable plan – before you run into trouble.

Risk management methodologies are designed to help you avoid devastating losses. The stop loss is the most basic tactic in your arsenal. Stops work because they define losses in advance. They provide an investor with an objective set of criteria for selling any position. This allows an investor to exit a holding before becoming emotionally involved.

Whenever I review a portfolio down 50 percent or worse, I know I’m seeing the handiwork of an investor who lacks a sell discipline.

Why are stop losses effective? Simply stated, there’s only so much any stock can do. It can go up a little or down a little. It can go up a lot — and here’s what is so devastating to portfolios — it can also go down a whole lot.

Investors who avoid the last scenario spare themselves the kinds of losses that are difficult to recover from.

Let’s look at some specific stocks to see how individual investors can apply different types of stop loss principals.

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Category: Apprenticed Investor, Technical Analysis, Trading

Lagging Psychology at Turning Points

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been debating the state of the economic recovery. The posts that have emphasized the shift in data towards the positive have generated a lot of pushback.

This is something that I want to discuss in general terms — I want readers to not only understand my perspective, but to grasp what typically occurs heading into recessions and recoveries, into new bull and bear markets. (Note I am speaking generally, and not referring tot he details of this cycle).

Over the next week, I will put together a broad overview of the positives and negatives of the economy, looking at the risks and opportunities presented. For now, let’s discuss the sentiment that typically accompanies oscillating phenomena,  such as markets or the economic cycle.

Today, I want to look at the big overview. Historically, the sentiment that occurs at inflection points are extremes. The are the result of the prior few years of economic/market activity. They lag the cycle — often quite significantly.


• Humans have an unfortunate tendency of to overemphasize our most recent experiences. We draw from what has just happened, rather than deduce based on what is occurring right now.

• Following that idea, the analyst community is typically too bullish at tops, too bearish at bottoms. They extrapolate from the most recent data to infinity or zero. Hence, they miss the inflection points.

• Sentiment is a justification of recent actions. Very often, equity buyers describe themselves as bullish after their purchase. The comments they make can are often an attempt to reassure themselves.

• Changing viewpoints is a gradual process. Flipping from bullish to bearish and vice versa is difficult. We remember what most recently rewarded us, and internalize that. After a period of economic expansion, we are slow to grasp the change for the worse. At the tail end of an ugly recession, we find it hard to imagine an imminent improvement.

• Investors develop the equivalent of Muscle memory. During a bull market, every dip that was bought made us money. When the cycle changes, we are slow to perceive it. Bulls become out of phase with what is taking place, buying on the way down in a bear market.

• The reverse takes place after a long Bear market. Selling rallies made us money, preserved capital during the downturn. When the sell off ends and a new bull cycle begins, the bears have a similar hard time getting back into sync with the market. Since it was so rewarding to sell into prior rallies, it becomes difficult to flip towards the positive perspective.

• Excuse making rationalizing the missed turn becomes endemic. We get conspiracy theories (the Fed is buying SPX minis!), complaints about the artifice of the market, Fed bashing, etc. They all have their roots in the missed turn. I even suspect some of the Goldman bashing (deserved tho it may be) is also partly rooted in this issue.

Consider this chart, which I first showed back in 2005 — but its worth reviewing again:



If you like these sorts of things, there are more psychology visualizations after the jump . . .

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Category: Apprenticed Investor, Cycles, Psychology

Apprenticed Investor: Bull or Bear? Neither

This was originally published ~5 years ago, on April 26, 20005 – 07:20 AM at

In light of some of the pushback to Friday’s commentary, I thought it might be worthwhile trotting it out again. This is an unedited version of the original, typos and all. The only change was to add the links to the related Apprenticed Investor articles.



I had an entirely different column in mind for today. But the events of last week were so peculiar, and so revealing of another classic investor foible, that I shifted gears.

This will be one of the few Apprenticed Investor columns written in response to current events. I’m doing so because I feel it’s necessary to address last week’s topsy-turvy market action. More specifically, the investor reaction to it.

A brief background: In my day job, I advise institutional investors on the state of the markets. When risk, according to my metrics, has risen unacceptably relative to reward, I become cautious. When the reverse happens, I get more aggressive. This has been my style for some time, and it works for me. Once I explain the process, I’ll lay out the mistakes the public makes in reaction to these market calls.

‘Are You a Bull or a Bear?’

I’ve heard this question countless times the past few weeks. And I find it a stunning rejection of Darwinian logic that proponents of such blather have managed to evade extinction. Investors simply never get asked a more distracting and pointless question. Effective investors find their style, then read the market and adapt accordingly.

Of course, in discussions about Wall Street, the bull and bear are mesmerizing. How often do we hear a newscaster somberly intoning: “The bears got gored by the bulls on Wall Street today…” The very next day, we hear the same talking head reverse course: “On Wall Street, the bears came out of their caves to chase the bulls, as the Dow dropped…”

The markets we saw last Wednesday and Thursday are textbook examples of why the colorful imagery of the bulls and bears is magnetically attractive to copywriters and repellent to good investing.

Why is this such a problem? Because of the “folly of forecasting“: Once people commit to a position, there is an unfortunate tendency to root for that perspective. Even worse, people stick with their forecast, regardless of what is actually happening in the market. We addressed this in the very first Apprenticed Investor, Expect to be Wrong. But instead of preparing, people dig their heels in and cost themselves money by being more concerned with trying to be right rather than making money.

Surely, there are cheaper places to look for validation than the stock market.

Bull and Bear, a Matched Pair

In a firm I worked at during the bubble years, many of the brokers had bulls on their desks, but no bears. I used to take away their bulls, and refuse to return them unless they promised to display the bear also. I did this to prove a point: There are two sides to every market.

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Category: Apprenticed Investor, Psychology

10 Psychological, Valuation, Adapative Investing Rules

This morning’s post discussing Floyd Norris front page NYT column generated even more pushback than I expected. I am always trying to create rules to help make better investment decisions and fight against my own wetware.  The earlier comment stream led me to these ten ideas; ignore them at your own risk: • Whether a…Read More

Category: Apprenticed Investor, Markets, Psychology, Really, really bad calls, Valuation

“Facts Plain to Any Dispassionate Eye”

Funny how these things work: In a rant Friday morning, I wrote: “Regular readers know that I despise political parties, believe partisans suffer brain damage — literally, they have the same cognitive deficits that ardent sports fans suffer. I have trashed both Bush and Obama, but moved to a bullish posture when despite either’s incompetence,…Read More

Category: Apprenticed Investor, Psychology

Lessons from Merrill Lynch

While I am not a fan of most big firm fundamental analysts, over the years, Merrill Lynch has had some sharp guys in their Chief Strategist/Economist positions. Here are some lessons and rules from 3 of them. Richard Bernstein was “notoriously cautious on stocks for much of this decade” — and was very bearish on…Read More

Category: Apprenticed Investor, Investing, Markets, Rules