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Sustainable Investing

Why Optimism Is a Secret Weapon in Investing

Author and financial researcher Larry Siegel discusses how you can use your intuition, understand your biases, and bring optimism into investing.

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Larry Siegel, the Gary P. Brinson director of research at the CFA Institute Research Foundation, and author of “Fewer, Richer, Greener,” joins The Long View this week to discuss optimism, intuition and education’s role in investing.

Here are a few excerpts from Siegel’s conversation with Morningstar’s Christine Benz and Jeff Ptak:

Do You Need a Generalist Humanistic Education to Specialize?

Benz: Speaking of specialization, do you think that the only way to truly specialize is to have had a generalist humanistic education first? In other words, are the most successful specialists people who trained as generalists first and is there any evidence for this?

Siegel: I think there is among CEOs and maybe CIOs, chief investment officers. The greatest businesspeople in the world have generally had a pretty broad background and a lot of them started, the legend is in the mail room, but they may have started in engineering, accounting. They may have started in sales. Whatever they did, they found their way to the investment business through a kind of evolution over time. An organization needs foxes and hedgehogs. Isaiah Berlin, drawing on an ancient Greek story, said that there are two kinds of people of foxes who know a little about everything and hedgehogs who no one big thing. Einstein, for example, was a hedgehog. He really only cared about physics, and he was very productive. We would have a very different world without him. I am suggesting that you’re better off looking for foxes, but you also want to have a few Einsteins in there, and an organization that consists entirely of foxes would be very unfocused and would be more like a college dorm than a business.

“Fewer, Richer, Greener”

Ptak: Wanted to shift and talk about something that seems like it’s been an awfully short supply lately, which is optimism. You wrote a book called Fewer, Richer, Greener, evincing optimism about the global economy and humanity in general. Have you always been an optimistic person? Or has it gone back and forth or been situation dependent?

Siegel: I’ve always been an optimistic person in terms of my intrinsic biases. I do know enough economic history and regular history to know that living conditions have improved so much in the last 250 years, and actually in the last 50, that you’d be kind of crazy to deny that things have improved. This is a bad year and a bad decade. And it’s very easy to become pessimistic when you read the news or check the stock market or look at the world situation with wars and so forth. But underneath the surface of all this chaos and negativity, technology is continuing to advance at an amazing rate of speed. And what we really rely on for economic growth is improvements in technology, where I use the word technology to mean it very broadly. Technology is not just the gadgets or computing power. It’s biology. It’s social technology—my ability to gather together a bunch of people in a Zoom meeting from all over the world and have a board meeting. And as this technology has grown in the broad sense, we have made our lives much easier; work has gotten easier. We do less of it. The 80-hour work week has now become a specialty of doctors, lawyers, and CEOs. Coal miners—my father-in-law was a coal miner and he worked 80 hours a week in a coal mine when they let him. He would have preferred to work 40, but he needed the money. So, we have an economy in which we produce an awful lot without doing all that much, frankly. We have probably the easiest lives of any population that’s ever existed.

Why Optimism Is a Secret Weapon in Investing

Benz: Optimism seems like one of those secret weapons in investing, in finance in that if you’re optimistic, you’re more likely to stick with it, stick with your plan, and markets have tended to reward people who have stuck with it over the longer term. But it’s hard to be optimistic about the long term given how unknowable things are. So, is the equity-risk premium compensation for subjecting ourselves to that unknowability?

Siegel: Yes. There are two kinds of risks. One is fluctuations in asset prices. We all know what that is. The market just went down 20% or 25%, and we’re feeling it. And we might forget this, but it went down 34% in a month in the spring of 2020, which is a profound dislocation in the markets. And a few months later, we forgot it. The other kind of risk is actually more profound, and it’s the possibility that our general expectations for assets are wrong. And if you look back, equities have returned about real 7%, 7% plus inflation. Going forward, it’s pretty unlikely that they’re going to do that over the next 20 or 30 years just because of the high prices. Even if economic growth were as rapid in the future as it was in the past, you want to pay less rather than more for the stocks. So, right now, they’re selling at a premium to their historical average. That conventional asset-allocation input of equities generate 6.7% or 7% real is almost certainly too optimistic, and we’ve got to do what Jack Bogle said, which is budget for it. We can’t all earn alpha and earn a higher return, because the net alpha in the market is 0, so we would all be trying to take it away from somebody else. We have to budget for lower returns.

When you look at the bond market, it’s even worse. Bonds seem to be priced to yield about real 0% to real 1%. That’s much lower than the historical average, about half the historical average.

Is Value Investing Worthwhile?

Ptak: It looks like real yields across the yield curve 49 to 99 basis points as of yesterday, which would be July 11, so a pretty paltry real yield. I did want to, if I may, stick with the general topic of optimism and its nexus with investing, talk about that in the context of value investing. I sometimes wonder if value investing pays off because it’s so repulsive over long stretches that it’s almost impossible to be optimistic. That does, though, raise questions about the implications for its practical usability. For instance, if investors are likely to give up on it because they do find it so repulsive when it underperforms growth as it had done until relatively recently, they might miss out on some of that payoff, which can come in bunches. Or do you think that’s off base? Do you think that value investing really is usable, you just have to stick with it long enough?

Siegel: I think that value investing is usable. But you shouldn’t concentrate your whole portfolio in it. What we’ve seen is that the pendulum has swung between value and growth in very long cycles and large cycles where value does much better or much worse for the entire time that data are available. Fama and French did this back to 1927 and you get these five- to 15-year swings, which is so long that people give up on either value or growth at exactly the wrong time. So, in 2007, value had outperformed massively, and it was a great time to buy growth stocks because we were just about to enter not a tech bubble but a period of tech innovation that produced huge returns for a decade and a half. Anybody who went against the grain, anybody who went against the tide and overweighted growth stocks did much better than the market from 2007 until a year or two ago. Now people are saying, only growth works, so value is disgusting. And the more disgusted you are, the more likely it is to work. I would overweight value right now, but not all the time.

Is Intuition a Better Model for Investing?

Benz: I wanted to ask about intuition. It’s something that tends to be greatly valued in everyday life, but it can lead us astray when it comes to investing. For example, in March 2020, which you referenced earlier, few of us expected the great snap back in the markets because intuitively we knew the pandemic would be bad for humanity. Do you think intuition was a better model for investing before markets became so efficient or has it never really worked?

Siegel: Well, informed intuition, if you’ve spent a lifetime in, let’s say, engineering and you know something about the way that computers are put together or the internet is put together or something, you might have had the intuition that this was going to be a profound change in the way everybody did everything and you bought those stocks. But the problem is that most people who bought the stocks in the first tech wave, in the 1990s, bought them without knowing anything about the individual companies. They were right about the technology; they were wrong about the companies. So, you would now have a portfolio of AltaVista and Netscape and AOL and a bunch of other companies that had promised but they were just outcompeted by somebody else. So, I would rather hang my hat on analysis than intuition unless you just happen to be one of those people with special inside knowledge but that is obtained legally. But most people who think they have inside knowledge don’t. So, I would try to avoid relying on intuition too much.

The author or authors do not own shares in any securities mentioned in this article. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.

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