Drowning in Data

If you agree with the proposition that more information leads to more efficiency in pricing in the markets, that should probably lead to the conclusion that markets have never been as efficient. We’ve simply never had this much data and data has never been as accessible as it is now.

Gone are the days when Warren Buffett could comb through Moody’s manuals to find net-nets. Now, data-rich stock screeners are readily available to anyone. On top of that, there are armies of hedge funds other quantitative investment shops out there, crunching data and trying to advantage of any arbitrage opportunity they can find.

A Valuable Lesson of VAR

Had you argued this to me about a year ago, I would have wholeheartedly agreed. Today I’m not so sure. And here’s the reason why.

You see, I’m a football fan (soccer) and recently they have implemented something called VAR into the game. VAR stands for Video Assistant Referee. It basically means that during a game there is now an additional assistant referee who reviews decisions made by the head referee with the use of video footage and analytical technology in real-time. He is then able to communicate with the head referee during the game.

The objective of the VAR implementation is to minimize human errors causing substantial influence on match results. Previously, the referee had to make split second decisions on incidents. Now he or she can utilize VAR, which means better data. The VAR can analyse incidents by replaying it from different vantage points and use graphics to determine rulings such as offside. Sounds great, doesn’t it.

The Interpretation of Data

The really interesting thing about VAR, is that after its implementation there is still a fair amount of dispute regarding key referee decisions. Even with the additional data provided by VAR, pundits are still arguing whether decisions on offsides, penalties and such where correct or not.

It seems that more accurate data by itself doesn’t necessary lead to better decision making. The data still needs to be interpreted. In that sense, it’s not just a question of decision being subject to human error or not. Sometimes, different people will perceive the same data differently. It is in some way a matter of opinion.

Financial Data and Insights

If we apply this to the investing world, it is safe to say the following:

If you would show two analysts the same financial and operational data two competing companies, it is entirely plausible that the conclusions that those two analysts might draw from the data would be diametrically opposed.

The interpretation of the data will be subject to frameworks the analysts used to draw insights out of the data. Insight, per definition, is the power or act of seeing into a situation. But insight, is in the analyst, not insight the data.

What’s obvious is obviously priced in…

The title of this post is a quote from a famous bond investor Jeffrey Gundlach. Gundlach is the manager of DoubleLine Capital, a huge bond fund, which has earned him the nickname the Bond King. 

It is clear to me that information that is obvious, should be priced into the market price of a public asset. This is logical. But if you abide by this logic, you should also agree with the statement that everything that is not obvious, is not priced in. 

By this logic, you would also have to assume that, unless every possible event is inherently obvious to market participants, the price of a public security is inevitably always wrong, since it does not account for the obvious. 

In the same vein, being a contrarian is a valuable stance, but only if there is an non-obvious truth that the market isn’t accounting for. Successful contrarians, try to approach the world from a different perspective. But they only act on it when they feel they have discovered an under appreciated possibility. 

The key is that thinking contrarian is a process, being contrarian is an action. You don’t always think contrarian, but only sometimes be contrarian.

The Efficient Market Paradox

Two economists are walking down a street, discussing the Efficient Market Hypothesis, when one of them suddenly stops in his tracks. He points to the street and says “look, there’s a $10 bill!”

The other economist looks at him with a mixture of amazement and disgust as he replies in a reprimanding tone: “Obviously, if there was a $10 bill there, someone would have already picked it up.”

What this joke illustrates is the inherent paradox of the Efficient Market Hypothesis. For markets to be efficient, they are active participants. For participants to be active in a market, there needs to be an arbitrage. In a perfectly efficient market, the arbitrage is competent away by the activity of the participants. 

The Markets are Mostly Efficient

No market is perfectly efficient. New information is constantly entering the collective perception of the market. Once information becomes obvious, it will obviously be priced in, when markets are efficient. 

WIth the internet and other technological advancement in data gathering, analytics and distribution, markets have undoubtedly become more efficient. In the early value investing days of Warren Buffett, he would read through Standard and Poor’s manuals, making mental calculations of stock’s intrinsic valuation. Nowadays, this information is readily available and calculated, practically in real time. 

In a podcast interview on the Invest with the Best Podcast, Michael Mauboussin, presented a fascinating statistic:  

I think that one of my other favorite statistics in the paper is that in 1976, there were less than 1 CFA charter holder, for every public company in the United States, and today there are 27 CFA charter holders for every public company in the United States. So a lot more eyeballs on the companies that are out there. And maybe there is clearly more dispersion in smaller midcap companies. But look, the world is just a super dynamic place. You see these value changes are quite dramatic. You think about 2020 and hardly anybody had any idea what was going to go on. It was really hard.

Degrees of Market Efficiency

It goes without saying that there are different degrees of efficiency. When you invest in big S&P 500 stocks such as Apple, Amazon or Netflix, you should be aware that there are hundreds of analysts that cover those stocks. You have to ask yourself what kind of an edge you have over those market participants. 

At the same time, there are plenty of markets and asset classes that are less efficient. There are many publicly traded stocks that don’t have a single analyst covering them. Outside of the stock markets there are all sorts of asset classes and markets where an individual can develop expertise and investment edge. Internet domains, for example, is an asset class that has a very vibrant secondary market and dedicated investors. 

There are plenty of $10 bills out there, waiting to be picked up.