Why Can’t Fund Managers Admit Mistakes?

“It infuriates me to be wrong, when I know I am right.” (Moliere)

In a previous job, I worked for an investment consultant who employed a psychologist to assist in their fund manager research process.  I vividly recall her making a particularly astute point about how we constantly hear about the failings of active fund managers, but rarely anything about how they can improve.  Whilst inevitably there are exceptions to this view, it is certainly reasonable to suggest that evidence of fund manager learning and development is scant.  I do not mean that there is a lack of generic, box ticking courses with no specific purpose, rather an apparent absence of weaknesses being openly identified and addressed.

This may seem odd as active management should be a ripe environment for constant improvement – the difficulty level is high, there is continual feedback (though not necessarily the right sort) and sufficient latitude in the role to change behaviours.  There is, however, a major problem; a key aspect of learning is the ability to identify areas of limitation and, in particular, admit mistakes.  This is something that fund managers are typically not very good at.  Although it is unfair to imply that the profession is unique in this regard – it is a constant struggle for us all – the environment in which a fund manager operates makes it particularly difficult to be open about failings, and therefore seek remedies.

“When an expert is wrong the centrepiece of his or her professional identity is threatened” (Tavris & Aronson, 2008)

The primary driver of our inability to admit errors and failings is cognitive dissonance – the battle to deal with situations where we hold contradictory beliefs, attitudes or feelings.  Such instances are deeply uncomfortable and we seek to resolve these inconsistencies as rapidly as possible, in order to preserve a coherent sense of self.  The most common ameliorative is some form of simple justification: “I am a safe and considerate driver, but the message on my phone could have been urgent, and the road was clear”.  This sort of internal monologue is a crucial part of how we navigate everyday life and look to validate our own behaviour.

Whilst cognitive dissonance is focused on self-perception, a similar dynamic is apparent in how we seek to present ourselves. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) sociologist Erving Goffman describes how individuals seek to manage and control the information that we offer others, and are consistently engaged in some form of performance, where we try to shape the impression that we leave.  Thus, we are often behaving in a way that we perceive to be consistent with what we believe are the key traits of the particular ‘role’ we are hoping to play – am I meeting the criteria expected of this type of person?

We are constantly faced with the challenge of attempting to manage how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us.  To develop their career, and sell their own capabilities, fund managers are required to present themselves as assured experts with an ability to opine on virtually any investment issue and present their ideas with little hint of doubt. The expectations of fund managers almost entirely contradicts the reality – adding value in markets is fiendishly difficult and a hit rate north of 60% should be deemed heroic; furthermore, any edge possessed by a particular manager will likely be focused and specific, not all encompassing. Markets are chaotic and unpredictable, even for the most talented manager, mistakes will occur with alarming regularity.

Yet it is hard to sell your fund to clients if you talk about failed positions, and approach your investment ideas with circumspection rather than unabashed conviction. Fund managers need to convince themselves and others that they have expertise, and a level of expertise that is superior to peers. Experts don’t make mistakes…

The other major problem for fund managers is one of commitment. A crucial part of their job involves convincing themselves, colleagues and clients of their opinion, and the more this opinion is repeated the more committed they become to it. In the face of overwhelming disconfirming evidence, fund managers often persist with a view or indeed become even more emboldened in it – rather that than lose face and recant on their previously high conviction ideas.  On countless occasions I have witnessed fund managers take such forthright positions that it becomes obvious that even if they are proven wrong it would be entirely unconscionable for them to perform an about face.  Often an investor’s entire professional identity will be forged on one particularly bold viewpoint.

In addition to simply ignoring mistakes, there are a number of tactics fund managers can employ to protect their ego.  These were first raised by Phillip Tetlock (1999) when he analysed how forecasters dealt with having particularly poor records in forecasting, and also highlighted by James Montier in his Seven Sins of Fund Management. My favourites include:

–  “If only”: If only the company hadn’t decided to engage in that expensive acquisition, my view would have been correct…

– “Ceteris paribus”:  Some external factor, which was impossible to foresee, impacted my otherwise robust analysis.

– “Not happened yet”:  A favourite of the dogmatists and those with commitment bias issues – I am right; it has just not been reflected in markets, yet

The problem is not that such excuses are always without merit, but that they subvert any need for introspection. As financial markets exist in a constant state of flux, it is all too easy to move forward with minimal consideration of the decisions that have come before.

The mistake I can recall most readily from my own career was a decision to sell a high yield bond fund early in 2009; if this was not at the ultimate peak of credit spreads, then it was impressively close.  I have, of course, made many errors since, but this is one that resonates sharply, I think because it was particularly stupid. It was not a mistake because junk bonds generated strong performance following the sale (you cannot decide the quality of a decision based solely on noisy market outcomes), but because, based on the evidence available, there was a (very) high probability of subsequent returns being significantly above the historical average.  This was a clear behavioural error driven by the sheer tumult of the period, leading to an ignorance (wilful or otherwise) of the data and historical precedent. I actually remember very little about the decision, except that it felt good for a few days and then bad for a few years.

This sort of mistake can be considered simple, in that there is the combination of a bad process followed by a bad outcome – these are the easiest to acknowledge and most difficult to ignore.  Investment markets, however, aren’t often as straightforward; their randomness and unpredictability often mean that sensible decisions are regarded as mistakes, whilst poor judgements can masquerade as investment acumen. Given this, it is naive to review a fund manager’s underperforming positions and suggest that they all constitute mistakes.  Relative stock price performance is far too capricious to use as a reliable arbiter of decision quality.

Identifying and understanding a mistake requires knowledge of the initial rationale for a particular course of action and then some comparison with the outcome.  This does not mean making forecasts, but simply comprehending the key drivers behind a decision.  For example, if part of my rationale for investing in a particular company is its strong balance sheet and it subsequently struggles with its sizable operating lease commitments, that is a specific error of judgment. Approaching mistakes in a process / outcome manner is the only way to address shortcomings and seek to make improvements.

We can think about most mistakes made by fund managers as either analytical or behavioural.  In the former, specific areas of flawed analysis can be pinpointed – either we looked at the wrong evidence or misinterpreted it, as in the example on lease commitments in the previous paragraph.  For behavioural mistakes, we make poor decisions despite having the appropriate evidence available to support a decision; my mistake of selling high yield at the most inopportune time was made in spite of their being sufficient information for me to know ex-ante that this was likely to be an error.  It was simply that a swathe of behavioural factors (most likely recency, availability, probability neglect and affect-led decision making) became overwhelming.  Of course, these two broad categories of mistake are not mutually exclusive; many analytical mistakes will be driven by behavioural flaws, but spending some time at least attempting to decipher how mistakes were made, and perhaps identifying patterns, can be a valuable process.

The concept of learning from mistakes can sound horribly trite, but it is actually an integral element of improved decision making.  In many ultra-competitive professions, such as fund management, where expectations about performance are significantly above any semblance of reality, being open about lapses and faults can damage ego, harm career prospects and lose clients. However, choosing to ignore or obfuscate rather than engage with things that have gone wrong is undoubtedly of detriment to future behaviour.  Taking steps to better engage with mistakes is not technically difficult, and there are a number of simple steps that can make a material difference, such as:

– Documenting decision making appropriately:  Make sure that prior to committing to a decision you detail the underlying rationale and key risks. It is impossible to assess a mistake after the event if you have not explicitly noted your thinking at the time a decision is made.  As much as you might think you can recall the reasons behind a past course of action – your memory is too fickle to be a reliable source.

– Performing a regular mistake audit: On an annual or semi-annual basis you and your colleagues should write down two / three mistakes they have made over the period.  They have to be genuine mistakes, with no caveats or excuses allowed.  This sort of process can go at least some distance toward creating a more favourable climate for embracing the times when we err.

These steps, however, can be fruitless (or indeed counterproductive) if you are operating in an environment that continues to stigmatise mistakes. In such organisations and teams, mistakes are ignored, excuses created and responsibility apportioned elsewhere.  Although this may enhance the esteem of the team (internally and externally); it is a terrible waste of a great resource to improve future decision making.  As the structural pressures on active fund managers increase, they need to grasp every available edge.

Key Reading:

Goffman, E. (2002). The presentation of self in everyday life. 1959. Garden City, NY.

Montier, J. (2005). Seven sins of fund management.

Tavris, C., & Aronson, E. (2008). Mistakes were made (but not by me): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Tetlock, P. E. (1999). Theory-driven reasoning about plausible pasts and probable futures in world politics: are we prisoners of our preconceptions?. American Journal of Political Science, 335-366.

Please note all views expressed in this article are my own and are not necessarily shared by my employer.