Extract from : Thinking, Fast and Slow

THE ILLUSION OF STOCK- PICKING SKILL

In 1984, Amos and I and our friend Richard Thaler visited a Wall Street firm. Our host, a senior investment manager, had invited us to discuss the role of judgment biases in investing. I knew so little about finance that I did not even know what to ask him, but I remember one exchange. “When you sell a stock,” I asked, “who buys it?” He answered with a wave in the vague direction of the window, indicating that he expected the buyer to be someone else very much like him. That was odd: What made one person buy and the other sell? What did the sellers think they knew that the buyers did not?

Since then, my questions about the stock market have hardened into a larger puzzle: a major industry appears to be built largely on an illusion of skill. Billions of shares are traded every day, with many people buying each stock and others selling it to them. It is not unusual for more than 100 million shares of a single stock to change hands in one day. Most of the buyers and sellers know that they have the same information; they exchange the stocks primarily because they have different opinions. The buyers think the price is too low and likely to rise, while the sellers think the price is high and likely to drop. The puzzle is why buyers and sellers alike think that the current price is wrong. What makes them believe they know more about what the price should be than the market does? For most of them, that belief is an illusion.

In its broad outlines, the standard theory of how the stock market works is accepted by all the participants in the industry. Everybody in the investment business has read Burton Malkiel’s wonderful book A Random Walk Down Wall Street. Malkiel’s central idea is that a stock’s price incorporates all the available knowledge about the value of the company and the best predictions about the future of the stock. If some people believe that the price of a stock will be higher tomorrow, they will buy more of it today. This, in turn, will cause its price to rise. If all assets in a market are correctly priced, no one can expect either to gain or to lose by trading. Perfect prices leave no scope for cleverness, but they also protect fools from their own folly. We now know, however, that the theory is not quite right. Many individual investors lose consistently by trading, an achievement that a dartthrowing chimp could not match. The first demonstration of this startling conclusion was collected by Terry Odean, a finance professor at UC Berkeley who was once my student.

Odean began by studying the trading records of 10,000 brokerage accounts of individual investors spanning a seven- year period. He was able to analyze every transaction the investors executed through that firm, nearly 163,000 trades. This rich set of data allowed Odean to identify all instances in which an investor sold some of his holdings in one stock and soon afterward bought another stock. By these actions the investor revealed that he (most of the investors were men) had a definite idea about the future of the two stocks: he expected the stock that he chose to buy to do better than the stock he chose to sell.

To determine whether those ideas were well founded, Odean compared the returns of the stock the investor had sold and the stock he had bought in its place, over the course of one year after the transaction. The results were unequivocally bad. On average, the shares that individual traders sold did better than those they bought, by a very substantial margin: 3.2 percentage points per year, above and beyond the significant costs of executing the two trades.

It is important to remember that this is a statement about averages: some individuals did much better, others did much worse. However, it is clear that for the large majority of individual investors, taking a shower and doing nothing would have been a better policy than implementing the ideas that came to their minds. Later research by Odean and his colleague Brad Barber supported this conclusion. In a paper titled “Trading Is Hazardous to Your Wealth,” they showed that, on average, the most active traders had the poorest results, while the investors who traded the least earned the highest returns. In another paper, titled “Boys Will Be Boys,” they showed that men acted on their useless ideas significantly more oft en than women, and that as a result women achieved better investment results than men.