Monday, February 23, 2009

I lost the toss

Jonathan here. My February 3 post, Will the Dow Set a New low in 2009, is the most stupid post I've ever written. Not because my thesis was wrong (it was), but in our line of work, focusing on process over outcome is what it's all about, and in the clarity of hindsight, I was focusing on outcome not process. So now that I've had my whipping, eaten crow, and been avoided at the water cooler by my colleagues, I wanted to share just a bit about what we know and think about market sentiment, or more precisely, investor sentiment. Sage investors know investors become buyers when the consensus gets cheerful. Warren Buffett said "you pay a high price for a cheerful consensus." Ben Graham, Buffett's mentor and teacher, urged his apprentice to "buy when there's blood in the streets", or words to that effect.

Clearly, anybody who's followed that kind of advice has had his head handed to him on a platter. For going on a year now, it seems like the crowd has been right and buyers or holders of stocks have gotten it all wrong. "Will this persist?" (like it looks like it will) is the wrong question to be asking. "How long will it last?" is, I believe, the right question.

We've heard that history repeats itself. With all the focus on what's happening now in the stock market, it seems that investors have, once again, pretty much discounted what's happened long, long ago. But that's not unusual; we're all prone to a bout with Outcome Bias every now and again. "It's different this time," we hear, ad nauseam. Yes, events are different this time. But human nature hasn't changed one whit in the last 1,000 years, and I seriously doubt it will before 2009 rolls to a close.

To that end, we've poured a lot of time into studying bullish and bearish sentiment and investor pain. Believing that investors really are predictably irrational, we want to learn what happened when investors sold stocks when everything was dismal and when they bought stocks when everything was rosy. I'm far from ready to offer any conclusions, but I'm happy to share our initial findings here.

If these charts pique your interest, your comments are welcome. Similarly, if you drop us a line, we'd be happy to chat.

If these charts pique your interest, your comments are welcome.  Similarly, if you drop us a line, we'd be happy to chat.

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