Monday, February 13, 2012

Ideas from a psychologist

I have just finished reading Daniel Kahneman's bestseller "Thinking, Fast and Slow", and found it full of inspirations important for traders. This is no surprise, of course, since Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel prize in economics for his work on decision theory. Here are some of the notables:

1) Simple sum is often better than a linear regression fit. Remember my constant mantra that "simpler is better" when building trading models? I have always advocated linear regression over nonlinear models, but Kahneman went a step further. He said that in social science modeling (which of course includes financial markets modeling), assigning equal weights to the predictive factors is often superior to weighting them using multivariate linear regressors when applied to out-of-sample data.

2) Overconfidence in corporate acquisitions. Managers of acquiring companies often believe that they are better than the managers of acquirees. This overconfidence has several causes: there is an illusion of control which overemphasizes the role of skill and neglects the role of luck, and there is a focus on what one knows and a neglect of what one does not, etc. The market already knows this: the stock of the acquirer usually suffers a sell-off upon announcement of the acquisition, because the result of any acquisition is more often bad than good, but the question is whether it has sufficiently discounted this phenomenon. Would shorting the stock of an acquirer at the completion of an acquisition and holding the short position for, say, 5 years, hedging this position with SPY, be profitable?

3) Premortem. After designing a trading strategy, it is always useful to write a brief imaginary history of how it has become an unmitigated financial disaster for you a few years from now. This will likely reveal scenarios that you have not previously thought of, and triggering additional risk management measures.

4) Risk seeking in the face of losses. Suppose you are running a strategy that has a fixed holding period. Have you ever extended this holding period when the position is losing, in the hope that the position will recoup some of its losses? I have, and the result was double the loss I would have suffered had I exited on time. Apparently this is a very common suboptimal behavioral bias: this is why many defendants with a weak legal case often risk continued litigations instead of accepting an unfavorable settlement.

5) Why do we often demand Sharpe ratio  >=2? Psychological experiments have shown that people find the pain of losing $1 can only be compensated by the pleasure of winning $2. So if we equate standard deviation as the average drawdown of a strategy, then we need to have twice the average return!

Many businesses have profited from arbitraging the difference between rational decisions and biased decisions that people commonly made. (For e.g. lottery franchises benefit from people overweighting the probability of winning, sellers of extended warranties benefit from buyers' risk-aversion.) I wonder if there are still opportunities left for rational traders to take advantage of the biased decisions of irrational traders?