Thursday, July 10, 2008

Choosing Numbers, Beauty Contests and Stock Markets

I once attended a class where the professor asked us to play a game. It was a pretty simple game on the surface. Everyone was asked to choose a number from 1 to 100. The person who chose a number that is closest to 2/3 of the average number that everybody chose will win the game.

Now how should one choose such that it would maximize one's chances of winning?

Well, first you must determine what is the average of everyone's number choices. There were about 100 students in the class, so assuming everyone randomly chooses a number, probably the average will be close to 50. So 2/3 of 50 will be 33.

But wait a minute. If everyone thinks similarly and chooses 33 then the average will be 33 and 2/3 of the average then becomes 22.

Hey wait a second, if everyone then chooses 22, the 2/3 of the average will then become 2/3 of 22 which will be 15. And so the reasoning goes.

So in the end, I chose 1, based on the above logic. Of course, I did not win the game. The real winning number, was somewhere between 22 and 33 (I forgot the actual no.). So what went wrong? And what the hell has it got to do with Beauty Contests and the Stock Markets?

Let's talk about the Beauty Contest first. The great economist John Maynard Keynes came up with this concept to explain the stock market. So this Beauty Contest is also sometimes known as the Keynesian Beauty Contest.

Btw Keynes is a big name in economics, if you don't know him, shame on you and pls go check him up on Wikipedia.

Anyways during Keynes time, some newspaper in London publishes 100 pretty faces and asks its readers to choose which face would likely be the pretty face that most readers choose.

So there are people who would simply choose who they think are the prettiest. However that's quite unlikely to win bcos we all have different tastes right? Xiang Yun may be your favourite but I like Fann Wong. Ah Beng may like Auntie Zoe and Ah Seng likes Wong Li Lin. (Ok as you can see, I belong to a dinosaur generation and has no clue who are the new stars.)

So some smarter readers will naturally try to guess who they think the general public will choose as the prettiest face. And just like our number game, even more sophisticated readers can even go further, and choose the face that other readers will choose as who they think the general public will choose as the prettiest face. And one can further increase the order of the guessing game.

Ok if you have been reading intently this far, you would have guessed that the stock market works in a similar fashion. Well that is if you want to pick a winning stock tomorrow, or next week or even in the next 6 or 12 mths.

Basically you can throw fundamentals out the window. Technicals may help a bit but what's gonna make you big bucks is to guess what everyone else is thinking and be a step ahead. The winning stock will be one which the market participants think will have the rosiest earnings growth in the near future. It does not necessarily mean that the stock will actually deliver the rosiest earnings. Just what everybody thinks is what it counts.

Actually the market mostly likely works in the 3rd order: ie the winning stock will be one which most market participants expects most other market participants to like a lot. This is chim, right?

Today, these are your alternative energy, oil exploration, frontier stocks etc.

It does not make sense to go too high into the order bcos the market cannot be too sophisticated as there will always be some uncles, aunties and amateurs choosing their own favourite pretty face (or their own favourite stock). That's why choosing 1 in the number game will not win.

In the stock market, it means that you shouldn't be buying stocks of a company that provides the core component for a high-end analytical equipment used to detect uranium in some desert. And as you know, uranium is used for nuclear power generation - the hot, sexy story in today's environment. The market is not sophisticated enough to think so far ahead. Even though you may be right and the company may have a genuine investment thesis.

This means that you shouldn't be thinking too far ahead of the market. You should be 1 step ahead but not 5 steps ahead. Well, that is if you want to pick winners in a short time frame: ie from 1 day to 6 to 12 mths.

In summary, the stock market works like the beauty contest in the short term. It's the ultimate guessing game and chances of you getting it right is not high unless you have that flair or talent. But over the long run (ie 5 yrs and above lah), stock prices have to reflect fundamentals: earnings growth, shareholders' return and companies' true intrinsic values. And value investing ensures that you have better chances getting that part right.

Zoe, Fann, Li Lin can be Queens of Caldecott Hill but Mother Theresa, Florence Nightingale, Helen Keller are the real winners in life's beauty contest.
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