There is a common decision-making adage that states: ‘a camel is a horse designed by a committee.’ Although there is some doubt over its origin it is thought to have been first uttered by Sir Alec Issigonis, designer of the iconic Mini car. The ungainly camel represents the flaws of committee-led design, which is often defined by indecision, competing interests and compromise. The sleek horse is the result of individuals or small teams operating with focus and a distinct purpose. Although it is a wonderfully salient maxim, it is deeply flawed. Camels are a design / adaption marvel and in areas such as investing they provide invaluable lessons about how best to deal with uncertainty.
The idea that a camel is a poorly conceived horse does a huge disservice to a fantastically versatile creature. Adapted for desert living, camels must deal with dramatic temperature extremes from +50°c to -40°c. This means that they cannot use fat as insulation (as many animals living in cold climates do), but instead store fat in humps and have insulating fur. The energy stored in their humps mean they can go for sustained periods without food; whilst their technique for processing water allows them to survive for days in the severest droughts.
Although not as rapid as the fastest horse they are no slouches with certain species able to run up to 40mph. They are also ideally suited to long distance toil. Bactrian camels can carry 200kg (440lbs) for 50km (31 miles) per day. Camels have a range of other adaptions that allow them to survive and function in hostile environments such as wide padded feet, an extra-long intestine (to aid water absorption) and a fluctuating body temperature. They are creatures built for variability and uncertainty.
We are drawn to horses because of their appearance and speed, but their design is only superior to a camel if we are certain about the distance, environment and terrain. The less we know about our future path and the conditions we will encounter, the more valuable the resilience of the camel becomes.
The preference for the alluring features of a horse over the unwieldy camel is also suffered by investors. Most of us have long-term objectives requiring a portfolio that can withstand extreme variability in the environment and cope with material uncertainty. We are, however, so often tempted by options that have proved themselves ideally designed for the recent past and assume those conditions will persist. This leaves us sharply exposed to the realities of a complex and dynamic system.
Even when we acknowledge that the investment landscape will be changeable our tendency is to believe that we can foresee this and adapt our positioning accordingly. When we attempt to time markets or invest in funds that do, we are declaring that we can forecast the undulating path ahead and identify the investment ideally designed to navigate it. Although the promise of holding the perfectly tailored investment vehicle at the appropriate moment is an appealing aspiration, it is also an exercise in profound and costly overconfidence.
A prudently diversified portfolio is akin to a camel; it is not the most attractive choice and at any given time there will always be a superior option to deal with the current circumstances. It feels like we are always making concessions and carrying unnecessary burdens. Those fat storing humps on a camel seem superfluous when food is abundant, but much like the drag of holding anything but the most in-vogue asset class or fund, they are essential tools for an uncertain future.
If we are asked to undertake a long journey along an unpredictable path we should take lessons from the design of a camel, not a horse.