Of Free Brains and Effortless Money


In the hospital, the relatives gathered in the waiting room, where a family member lay gravely ill. The doctor came in looking tired and dull.
“I’m afraid I’m the bearer of bad news,” he said as he surveyed the worried faces. “The only hope left for your loved one at this time is a brain transplant.”
“Oh, how risky is the procedure?” a relative asked.
“It’s an experimental procedure, very risky,” the doctor replied, “but it is the only hope for your loved one. Insurance will cover the procedure, but you will have to pay for the BRAIN.”
The family members sat silently as they absorbed the news. After a time, someone asked, “How much will a brain cost?”
The doctor quickly responded, “Rs 20 lac for a male brain, Rs 5 lac for a female brain.”
The moment turned awkward. Some of the men had to ‘try’ to not smile, avoiding eye contact with the women.
A man unable to control his curiosity, finally blurted out the question everyone wanted to ask, “Why is the male brain so much more than a female brain?”
The doctor smiled at the childish innocence and explained to the entire group, “It’s just standard pricing procedure. We have to price the female brains a lot lower because they’ve been used.”
Well, if you are a man reading this, please don’t feel bad about what you just read. This is the reality, and especially when you are an investor in the stock market, and especially when you are trying to make decisions in the midst of a bull market.
We often fail to use our brain, that priceless resource that is given free to each human being at birth…and maybe because it is given free to us.
Earl Nightingale wrote in his book The Strangest Secret

It’s as though the Creator said, “Here you are. You now have a copy of the creative agent that produced the plays of Shakespeare, bridged San Francisco Bay, and harnessed the energy and fire of the sun. I put it into your keeping for the span of your life. Do with it what you will.”

And we do with our brain what we will, again especially when we are investors in the stock market, and especially when we are trying to make decisions in the midst of a bull market after already having earned large doses of effortless money. Like Newton, who earned and then lost tons of money and his reputation acting as an investor and then speculator in the stock of South Sea Company in the 1720s.
I recently read a tweet from Morgan Housel tweet quoting Jason Zweigsaying this…

There is nothing more poisonous to rational behavior than making a boatload of money in a short period of time.

To this, Prof. Sanjay Bakshi tweeted what Warren Buffett wrote in his 2000 letter to shareholders

The line separating investment and speculation, which is never bright and clear, becomes blurred still further when most market participants have recently enjoyed triumphs. Nothing sedates rationality like large doses of effortless money. After a heady experience of that kind, normally sensible people drift into behavior akin to that of Cinderella at the ball. They know that overstaying the festivities—that is, continuing to speculate in companies that have gigantic valuations relative to the cash they are likely to generate in the future—will eventually bring on pumpkins and mice. But they nevertheless hate to miss a single minute of what is one helluva party. Therefore, the giddy participants all plan to leave just seconds before midnight. There’s a problem, though: They are dancing in a room in which the clocks have no hands.

Before the Music Stops
During late 1999 through early 2000, near the peak of the dot-com bubble, the legendary George Soros and his hedge-fund team was working on how to prepare for the inevitable sell-off in technology stocks.
The man in charge of Soros’ high profile technology funds was Stanley Druckenmiller – one of the best-performing hedge fund managers of all time, till date – and he was busy warning his team that the sell-off could be near and could be brutal.
As the markets soared further in March 2000, Druckenmiller was quoted as saying, “I don’t like this market. I think we should probably lighten up.” Soros himself would regularly warn his team that tech stocks were a bubble set to burst.
Despite this, when the sell-off finally did begin in mid-March 2000, Soros Fund Management wasn’t ready for it. His funds were still loaded with high-tech and biotech stocks. Just in five days, starting 15th March, Soros’s flagship Quantum Fund saw what had been a 2% year-to-date gain turn into an 11% loss. By the end of April, the Quantum Fund was down 22% since the start of the year, and the smaller Quota Fund was down 32%.
Post that, in April 2000, Soros said at a conference, “Maybe I don’t understand the market. Maybe the music has stopped, but people are still dancing.”
The same month, at another conference, Druckenmiller confessed, “It would have been nice to go out on top, like Michael Jordan. But I overplayed my hand.”
Here is how Druckenmiller summarized his experience of 2000 in an interview late last year (Nov. 2013) –

I bought the top of the tech market in March of 2000 [after quickly making money in the same space in mid-late 1999] in an emotional fit I had because I couldn’t stand the fact that it was going up so much and it violated every rule I learned in 25 years.
I bought the tech market very well in mid-1999 and sold everything out in January and was sitting pretty; and I had two internal managers who were making about 5% a day and I just couldn’t stand it. And I put billions of dollars in within hours of the top. And, boy, did I get killed the next couple months.

Remember “Risk”
Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital, wrote this in his seminal book The Most Important Thing

In bull markets – usually when things have been going well for a while – people tend to say ‘Risk is my friend. The more risk I take, the greater my return will be. I’d like more risk, please.’
The truth is, risk tolerance is antithetical to successful investing. When people aren’t afraid of risk, they’ll accept risk without being compensated for doing so… and risk compensation will disappear. But only when investors are sufficiently risk-averse will markets offer adequate risk premiums. When worry is in short supply, risky borrowers and questionable schemes will have easy access to capital, and the financial system will become precarious. Too much money will chase the risky and the new, driving up asset prices and driving down prospective returns and safety.

Risk, which Marks and Warren Buffett have often defined as losing significant amounts of money and permanently, often moves in the same direction as valuations.
In other words, risk increases/decreases as valuations rise/fall. At the same time, high valuations imply weak prospective returns, while depressed valuations imply strong prospective returns. Consequently, both Marks and Buffett suggest that risk is lowest precisely when prospective returns are the highest, and risk is highest precisely when prospective returns are the lowest.
Economist and investment strategist Peter Bernstein said –

The riskiest moment is when you are right.

In one of his posts from 2015, Jason Zweig wrote this –

In much of life, doing things right over and over again is a sign of skill; expert musicians, for instance, rarely hit a wrong note. And the skill of one professional musician doesn’t make it harder for the others to be equally expert.
But in the financial markets, where so many investors are highly skilled, their actions cancel each other out as they quickly bid up the prices of any bargains—paradoxically making luck the main factor that distinguishes one investor from another.
And a streak of being right can make anyone forget how important luck is in determining the outcome.

I see a lot of Mr. Rights all around me, including people I thought were sensible and human enough to make mistakes. I see a lot of people (including yours truly) having made large doses of effortless money in recent times. And I see a lot of people often sliding into situations where they don’t want to waste time and effort using their brains to make sensible, intelligent investment decisions…because all they are looking at are happy, effortless, outcomes.

You better use your brain, especially because you used it to earn your savings that you now want to invest, and especially now when we are passing through rapid and frequent bouts of irrationality.P.S. A British neurophysicist has said that if we would have to approximate electronically an average human brain, it would cost three billion-billion dollars; that’s $3,000,000,000,000,000,000; and that’s 38,000 times the global GDP. You and I are fortunate to own one for free.
Maybe, only when we remember this number that’s put to an average human brain, we may try to sometimes use it more rationally, especially while investing our savings during a bull market, and after having earned large doses of effortless money.

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