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Alpha Theory Blog - News and Insights

November 10, 2017

Predictably Insightful: Recap of the Behavioral Alpha Conference

 

This is a picture of me and Dan Ariely, author of “Predictably Irrational” and five other great books on decision pitfalls we all fall into. Dan was the keynote speaker at Behavioral Alpha 2017 an event put on by our friends at Essentia Analytics and we were proud to help sponsor.

 

Behavioral Alpha

 

The day was packed with great speakers including:

- Dan Ariely: “Behavioral Finance in Practice” 

- Denise Shull talking about “Your Senses, Feelings & Emotions are the Ultimate Dataset”

- Clare Flynn Levy: "Applying Behavioral Finance to Your Own Investment Process" 

- Fireside Chat with Mark Baumgartner: “Why Asset Allocators Care About Behavioral Analysis” 

- Cameron Hight: “Mistakes Managers Make & How to Fix Them”

- Peer Idea Exchange: Paul Sonkin and Paul Johnson: “Pitching the Perfect Investment:

- Managing the Tensions Between Analysts and Managers” 

- Dave Winsborough: “How the Collective Personality of Your Team Affects Performance”

 

Here’s a quick recap of some of the takeaways:

Dave Winsborough discussed ways that we can build better teams by understanding the goal we’re trying to accomplish, the needed components to accomplish that goal, and measuring the team participants to make sure that the team has all of the necessary components. It’s a relatively straightforward idea that should be applicable to almost any team.

Denise Shull discussed ways we can become better in tune with our feelings and emotions with the idea of learning when and how to leverage those feelings. Learning how to identify our own emotions is a powerful first step towards being able to mute the negative emotions and take advantage of the positive (signals).

Much of the conference was on emotion and bias and how they cause us to make poor decisions. I completely agree, but that’s not my expertise. I spent much of my time talking the processes that help mitigate bias. This primarily involved making our assumptions and decision process explicit so that they can be judged and analyzed.

Dan Ariely gave several fascinating anecdotes like how casinos are the best at applying behavioral tools, how company internal satisfaction surveys have predictive power for stock performance, how Intuit is giving teams time and money to try bold new initiatives to help them get over the risk of projects that fail, a weight scale that doesn’t show your weight (but tracks it over time) is a much better way to lose weight than one that gives immediate feedback that is subject to good-habit-breaking volatility, and how people in the next to the lowest tax bracket are the ones most opposed to minimum wage hikes because it could push them into the lowest rung of society. His major takeaway was the bias and personality are tough to eliminate so you have to create habits, rules, and routinized behaviors that help us do the things we say we want to do (very Alpha Theory😉).

Clare Flynn-Levy showed how investors can make better decisions by capturing some basic information about themselves and their decisions. Taking the time to tie those data points together can help us better understand when we make good decisions and when we make poor decisions. By understanding these cues when they’re happening we can take advantage of the positive and avoid the negative.

Mark Baumgartner discussed his time at the Ford Foundation and Institute of Advanced Studies and some of the things he’s seen in the managers he evaluates. He said that about 10% of the managers he meets have some form of structured process around behavioral science, decision making, portfolio management, position sizing, etc. He believes that the primary value of a manager isn’t based on these processes, but he believes there is a lot of easy to pick up alpha form implementing process. He would like to see his managers embrace it more actively but says the industry moves glacially while the products that help improve the process are evolving very fast.

The room was full of managers and allocators. There was a self-selection bias, but the crowd truly embraced the concepts for how to be better using the behavioral science discussed during the day. In fact, the crowd asked amazing questions and one of my favorite parts of the day was from a member of the audience that was expanding on his thoughts about the difficulties of capturing alpha. He said the number of investors has increased from 5,000 to 1 million over 50 years. How do you reverse that trend when it is one of the highest paid professions, where you get to work with amazing people, research a broad range of interest, get to meet leaders in industry, academics, and government, and be exposed to an array of amazing ideas? If I’m ambitious and at the top of my class, why would I not pursue that profession.

Hmmmmm, maybe we can ask Dan Ariely if he has some creative way to change that behavior.

 

October 20, 2017

American Idols

I was lucky enough to be part of a small event, The Frontier of Forecasting Conference, hosted by Good Judgment Inc. Among the participants were Phil Tetlock, Barbara Mellers, and Daniel Kahneman. For those that don’t know, Kahneman is a Nobel Laureate and considered the father of Behavioral Economics. Tetlock and Mellers are the brains behind Superforecasting.

Several of you were interested in attending but unable to make the trip. The following is a summary of the presentations from the conference. 

 

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Left to right: Phil Tetlock, Barbara Mellers, Daniel Kahneman, Lucky Man

 

Tetlock on Gisting

Good Judgment's CEO Terry Murray opened up the morning by introducing the founder of the company, Phil Tetlock. Phil talked about a new idea that he’s working on called Gisting. The goal is to improve understanding by taking a large amount of information and having multiple people create a Gist or a shorter explanation of the information. These Gists would then be graded by peers and the best ones would be picked and synthesized into a team Gist. This leads to a deeper understanding by the “gisters” and easier understanding by readers that only have time for the gist.

Gists are important because full understanding is never just quantitative or qualitative. Superforecasting is quantitative. Supergisting attempts to provide the qualitative piece. The challenge is that time is scarce and this is a new task that will meet resistance in most organizational culture.

Gisting is a relatively new idea and it will be interesting to watch how it develops as Phil, Barbara, and Good Judgment group put more time into research. The next book, Supergisting?

Kahneman on Noise

Kahneman was next up and he spent his time talking about Noise. The concept is not new but he believes it should become a focus because it is easier to reduce than bias. He described an insurance company that he worked with to improve claims adjuster accuracy. He measured the efficacy of their claims process by having independent adjusters price the same claim. The average difference in claim value was 50%! That means that one adjuster might write a check for $1,000 and another for $1,500 for the same claim. He described how a simple algorithm would dramatically reduce noise and improve claim accuracy.

The discussion took a slightly cynical tone when he described how few of his practical ideas were actually put into practice. For example, the insurance firm, after learning of these gross miscalculations, didn’t implement the systematic approach he suggested. He gave another example of how Steven Levitt, of “Freakonomics” fame, showed a simple system of fraud detection improvement to a credit card company that would have saved many millions a year, but wasn’t implemented.

Kahneman said, “change causes winners and losers. Losers are much louder than winners, which makes reform much less likely.” And that “leaders don’t want to see their mystique questioned by systems.” Dr. Mellers had a nice rejoinder that “things will change, one funeral at a time.” For all of us Superforecasting believers, we hope it happens faster than that.

I believe the success that Ray Dalio and Bridgewater have seen by being very systematic and process-oriented may shed some light and make leaders less resistant to change. The publishing of Dalio’s “Principles” will be read by many leaders and get a conversation started about how we all can improve by being more disciplined.

Idea Exchange on Forecasting

The second half of the day was a “safe zone” event to permit free-flowing exchange of ideas due. This means that I’m not allowed to comment on the dialog but I can give a high-level recap.

I was a panelist for “Improving Probabilistic Forecasting Within Organizations.” The goal was to give real world examples of people implementing forecasting tools to improve decision making. It was exciting to see many firms experimenting with forecasting systems. In my view, shared by Good Judgment's president Warren Hatch, who chaired the panel, the challenge that most faced was getting broad adoption and keeping momentum.

The critical component for solving this challenge is getting top-level buy-in. If senior leadership asks questions and uses the output to make decisions, then people will participate. Another strategy for increasing participation was active feedback. Providing scores, leaderboards, best/worst forecasts, stats, etc. have a demonstrable impact on usage.

Better Forecasting Through Better Models

The final discussion was “Bayesian Cluster Forecasting Models for Strategic Decision-Making” lead by Dr. Kathryn McNabb Cochran. She is part of Good Judgment Inc. and is a leader in the field of better decision making through forecasting. The goal is to make better forecasts by creating better models. The models are a hybrid of pure forecasts and adjustments that lead to more accurate forecasts.

For anyone curious about how they can be better forecasters and apply that thinking to their organization, please contact the great folks at Good Judgment Inc.

Final Thought

Meeting several of my heroes in one day made me think how nice it would be if the GE ad campaign in which great scientists are treated like stars was reality. How cool would it be if my girls could grow up in a world where Kahneman and Tversky were admired as much as Brady and Gronk.