The Power of Not Having a View

If you work in the investment industry then you must have a view. Always. About everything. When will inflation peak? Will the Fed pivot? How will Japanese equities fare over the next six months? Is Amazon expensive? Does this fund manager have skill? If we don’t have an opinion then we either lack knowledge or conviction, perhaps both. As professional investors this is what we are being paid for, isn’t it?

No, it isn’t. Quite the contrary. The ability to not have a view on most subjects is a major advantage, just one that is incredibly difficult to exploit.

There is a stigma attached to saying “I don’t know”, not just in the investment industry but in many walks of life. Nobody wants to sit on the fence or stand in the middle of the road, but for investors this is absolutely the correct place to be most of the time. We are operating in a highly complex, uncertain environment where most predictions are either difficult or impossible. Being well-calibrated means spending a lot of time not having an opinion.

The majority of investors have all sorts of views. Does this mean we are poorly calibrated? In many cases, yes. There are two reasons why investors are so keen to predict everything. The first is simple overconfidence – we think we are better than we are.  The second is because it is expected of us – our clients want us to have a view, so we must form one.

Why is there an expectation for investors to have views on everything? Because it gives a sense of control. Financial markets are messy, chaotic, and anxiety-inducing; when an investor makes predictions and trades on them it feels like there is a steady hand on the tiller, rather than our portfolios being a hostage to fortune.

This is the enduring appeal of tactical asset allocation despite the compelling evidence that people cannot time markets successfully and consistently. Things are happening so investors need to be seen to be doing something about it.

But having wide-ranging and ever-changing views on markets is not harmless, it is damaging. Not only are investors constantly forecasting things when we cannot reasonably expect to have any skill in the task; it also means that we will be trading far more than is necessary – destroying value through transaction costs and the losses that stem from predicting the unpredictable.

The erroneous views that investors hold come in two forms. We can be operating far outside of our circle of competence – it is not feasible to have credible expertise in UK mid cap companies, the Chinese real estate sector, and the implications of the latest US non-farm payrolls report. Most common, however, is simply to have views on subjects that are not reasonably inside anybody’s circle of competence – typically these are short-term market perspectives: how is the Russell 2000 going to fare relative to the S&P 500 over the next six months? Who knows?

The vacillations of deep and intricate financial markets are endlessly fascinating but being intrigued by them does not mean we need to take a position or trade.

When Should Investors Take a View?

So if investors should avoid taking views most of the time, when should they do it?

The critical questions to ask are whether it is reasonable to have a view at all (is it something we or anyone can predict) and are the odds on our side in getting it right?

Let’s take an example.

I am asked to predict whether global equities will generate positive returns over the next six months. I have no idea. Over short run horizons markets are noisy and unpredictable, and I would simply be guessing with little confidence in my outlook.

But what if I am asked to predict whether global equities will generate positive returns over the next ten years. Here I have a view. Over the longer term the performance of equities will likely be driven by the cash flows they generate. History also tells me the odds are in my favour in having a confident (though not certain) perspective.

We should only express forthright views and take positions where we have a long-time horizon and a robust evidence base that suggests the likelihood of our view coming to pass is strong. This will often only occur when markets are priced at extremes, everything else we can think of as noise.

Wilful Ignorance

Not having an investment view on every imponderable in financial markets can seem like ignorance, but it actually shows an acute awareness of the environment in which we operate. It is far more ignorant to believe that we can accurately predict all manner of complex and unfathomable things.

Rather than have an ever-evolving set of views and positions, we would be far better off allowing others to pontificate and trade, and instead wait until there are opportunities where the probability of good outcomes are firmly on our side.

Investors would be far happier (and better off) not having a view on most things most of the time.

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.