Learning to Be a Good Investor is Hard

Learning the skills required to become a good investor should be easy. There is plenty of information, decades of evidence and many willing teachers. Despite this it is anything but – we only need to look at the consistent and costly mistakes that we all make to acknowledge how tough it is. But what makes it quite so difficult? Terrible feedback loops. Effective feedback is critical to good learning, but in investing these feedback loops are as unhelpful as they could possibly be. Long, noisy and erratic.

The first time we put our hand on a hot stove, we quickly learn that it is a bad idea. Why is this? Because the feedback loop is short and direct. The immediate heat and pain provide an incredibly salient lesson in what not to do in the future. Unfortunately, not all feedback loops are this efficient.

If we break down the critical features of a useful learning feedback loop, we can see why investing is so problematic:

FeedbackEasier LearningHarder Learning
ResponseShortLong
ResultsClearUnclear
ImpactMinorMajor

Response: Rapid responses are vital in being able to understand immediately what a sensible course of action looks like. If we only felt pain in our hand two years after we put it on the stove, then the lesson really isn’t that valuable. If we want to make good decisions in the future, we need to receive good quality feedback as quickly as possible.

This is a real problem for investing. A long-term approach is critical for most successful investors, but – by definition – we only reap the rewards of this over time. We don’t get helpful instant feedback. We must wait and trust that we will get the right outcomes from the choices we make.

Results: Feedback is most useful when the link between our actions and results is clear. We have no doubt that the consequence of touching the stove is the burn on our hand. Things become much trickier when there is blurring between our choices and their outcomes.

Measured, sensible and evidence-backed investment decisions will often appear the opposite. They will frequently be outshone by investors engaging in ill-informed, wild speculation. This is particularly problematic over short time horizons, where meaningless noise dominates outcomes.

Imagine we are taking an exam. We know that nobody else in our class has studied, they barely even turned up to lessons. We have worked diligently and prepared to the best of our abilities. When the results come out, however, we find out that we are bottom of the class. We inevitably question why we bothered to work so hard and wonder whether we should follow the more relaxed approach of our classmates.

This is the situation faced by an investor trying to learn the craft. Good decisions will often receive feedback (in terms of short-term performance) that looks poor. So how can we be confident that we are doing the right thing?

Impact: Learning from short feedback loops only works if the impact from negative feedback is minor. Discovering that jumping from a tall building is a bad idea is excellent feedback, but the consequence is so severe that it is not that useful in the future.

Investors might receive valuable feedback on the dangers of concentration, the risk of leverage or the warning signs of investment fraud. These lessons are not so valuable if they come only after catastrophic losses.

The learning feedback loop for investment decisions is long, wildly erratic, and often too consequential.

How Do Investors Learn?

Investors learn in two ways. From our own experience and from the experience of others. It is often assumed that the most valuable form of learning is personal experience and whilst there is some truth to this – I have certainly learnt a great deal from my investing mistakes – it is not entirely accurate.

Our own personal sample size is simply too small. We will only have a narrow and particular set of experiences – and that just isn’t enough. It is far too easy to learn the wrong lessons. Imagine we are fortunate enough to begin investing in the early days of an investment bubble. We might go through years of learning about how valuations don’t matter, stories are everything and prices only go up. That is what our feedback has told us.

So, we must rely on others to learn how to make good investment decisions. Whilst this is better – it gives us a far more robust body of evidence – it is still challenging. Now we have so many samples to choose from we are easily confused – who and what should we pay attention to?

How to Learn Without Good Feedback Loops

Noisy and long feedback loops makes learning to make good investment decisions incredibly difficult. It means there will be times when we are likely to doubt even the most unimpeachable principles – such as the prudence of diversification. There are, however, several steps we can take to help address the problem:

Ignore near term feedback as much as possible: Unless we are short-term trading (good luck), then we need to ignore the random fluctuations of markets – even if there is a compelling story attached. It rarely tells us anything useful.

Decide what type of feedback is useful: Although disregarding short-term performance is vital for most investors, it is not reasonable to wait 40 years to judge whether you have made a sound decision. Instead, we need to consider what type of information would be helpful in assessing the quality of the decisions we have taken. For example, if the performance of our investments is wildly more volatile than we were expecting – this is probably helpful feedback. We should set some reasonable expectations to compare our results against.

Understand that our own experience is a very small and biased sample: We can learn from it, but it can also be deeply misleading.

Learn the right things from the right people: Learning from the experience of others is essential for investors, but it also leaves us vulnerable. From day traders posting their successes on Twitter to an outright snake oil salesman selling get rich quick trading schemes (to make themselves rich), there are more bad lessons out there for us than good ones – and, to make matters worse, the bad ones are more exciting.  Unlike school, in investing the best lessons are the boring ones. We should learn from those who have the right alignment of interests, similar objectives and plenty of experience.

Weigh evidence correctly: Not all evidence is created equal. The vast amount of information and noise around financial markets means that good learning involves being able to filter evidence that is robust (broad, long-time horizons, sound principles) from that which is flimsy (narrow, transitory and biased).

Focus on general principles rather than specific stories: Understanding principles that are likely to hold through time (the importance of valuation, the power of compounding or the benefits of diversification) is likely to be far more worthwhile than learning specific ideas about markets, assets or trading techniques, which will often prove fleeting. These principles can become models that we can apply across all types of investment decisions.

The feedback problem makes learning to become a good investor incredibly difficult, at times it can feel like learning to play the piano but where each time we hit the correct key the wrong note sounds. It is easy to become disenchanted.

Any useful feedback we receive will often be too late, either because something has gone badly wrong or because meaningful results only emerge over time. There is no easy solution to this. Investing is an exercise in dealing with short-term noise, deep uncertainty and profound behavioural challenges.  The best we can do is base our decisions on sound principles, always be willing to learn and understand that most short-term feedback can be happily ignored.



I have a book coming out! The Intelligent Fund Investor explores the beliefs and behaviours that lead investors astray, and shows how we can make better decisions. You can find out more here.