Monday, March 16th, 2009
rational choices

Right now, it is one hour before the start of trading in the United States, and investors are getting ready for another day of making choices. The weekend reading, the overnight action, and the breaking news are being put into context and integrated into plans of attack by the players.

It is not a monolithic group. Some are quick to move, some more methodical. Time horizons vary from the very short to the very long. Every asset class, style, and investment philosophy are represented in the market stew, and there are opinions aplenty in the air.

At the investment organizations that manage the big money, all of this collides throughout the day in one-on-one exchanges between those who make the decisions, as well as at formal and impromptu meetings where they gather in larger numbers.

And so we have the symbolic table below, surrounded by empty chairs, soon to be filled with the protagonists of those meetings.

In preparation for a recent talk on behavioral finance, I pulled out a decade-old finance text to see what it had to say on the subject. The neoclassical approach that underpins its nine hundred pages assumes no systematic biases in the errors that investors make, which has to seem a little less believable today, even to the believers. The few paragraphs on behavioral finance indicate that such “assumptions of rationality” are a safe bet when it comes to the giant investors that rule the markets:

After all, institutional investors bring to bear extensive analytical resources on the investment management problem. Moreover, the decision-making structures of institutional investors — such as hierarchies of personnel, committees, and performance reviews — are all designed to promote consistent and rational investment choices. Sharp, Alexander, and Bailey. Investments. Sixth Edition, 1999.

As I have indicated before,the research puzzle | From “patterns of behavior”: “While behavioral finance has increased in importance, it often focuses on the individual (and the classic behavioral errors that we tend to make) or the collective of the marketplace (‘look at the lemmings heading toward the cliff’). Very little work has been done at the level that I find most interesting – the investment organization.” despite the fact that investment firms succeed or fail largely because of how they make their decisions over time, there is a dearth of good work on just how well these organizations meet the ideals laid out above.

We will return to this table in the months and years to come, to examine the dynamics of the interactions that occur around it and the decisions that result. Those of you who are independent traders (and who have your own web of inputs and possible systematic errors, which we will deal with in due course) might think such scrutiny is not worth your time.

On the contrary, in a few minutes you will meet those from the table in today’s market battle. Knowing who is on the other side of the trade, and the errors that they may be prone to make, is the essence of preparation.