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Written by MarketPsych CEO Dr Richard Peterson, our free newsletter provides commentary on current events from a behavioral perspective. Additional topics include behavioral theories and our latest research results.

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May 04, 2015

Our Age of Speculative Manias & Making Sense of Chinese and Biotech Stocks

Evidence of bubbles has accelerated since the [2007-2009 financial] crisis.
~ Robert Shiller ("Irrational Exuberance," 2015).

The celebrated author and humorist Samuel Clemens (pen name Mark Twain) documented his experiences in the Nevada mining stock bubble, and his writings are one of the earliest (and certainly the most humorous) firsthand accounts of involvement in a speculative mania.

After a brief stint as a Confederate militiaman during the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, Clemens purchased stagecoach passage west, to Nevada, where his brother had been appointed Secretary of the Territory. In Nevada, Clemens began working as a reporter in Virginia City, in one of Nevada’s most productive silver- and gold-mining regions. He enviously watched prospecting parties departing into the wilderness, and he quickly became “smitten with the silver fever.”

Clemens and two friends soon went out in search of silver veins in the mountains. As Clemens tells it, they rapidly discovered and laid claim to a rich vein of silver called the Wide West mine. The night after they established their ownership, they were restless and unable to sleep, visited by fantasies of extravagant wealth: “No one can be so thoughtless as to suppose that we slept, that night. Higbie and I went to bed at midnight, but it was only to lie broad awake and think, dream, scheme.”

Clemens reported that in the excitement and confusion of the days following their discovery, he and his two partners failed to begin mining their claim. Under Nevada state law, a claim could be usurped if not worked within 10 days. As they scrambled, they didn't start working, and they lost their claim to the mine.  His dreams of sudden wealth were momentarily set back.

But Clemens had a keen ear for rumors and new opportunities. Some prospectors who found rich ore veins were selling stock in New York City to raise capital for mining operations. In 1863, Clemens accumulated stocks in several such silver mines, sometimes as payment for working as a journalist. In order to lock in his anticipated gains from the stocks, he made a plan to sell his silver shares either when they reached $100,000 in total value or when Nevada voters approved a state constitution (which he thought would erode their long-term value).

In 1863, funded by his substantial (paper) stock wealth, Clemens retired from journalism. He traveled west to San Francisco to live the high life. He watched his silver mine stock price quotes in the newspaper, and he felt rich: “I lived at the best hotel, exhibited my clothes in the most conspicuous places, infested the opera. . . . I had longed to be a butterfly, and I was one at last.”

Yet after Nevada became a state, Clemens continued to hold on to his stocks, contrary to his plan. Suddenly, the gambling mania on silver stocks ended, and without warning, Clemens found himself virtually broke. 
"I, the cheerful idiot that had been squandering money like water, and thought myself beyond the reach of misfortune, had not now as much as fifty dollars when I gathered together my various debts and paid them."

Clemens was forced to return to journalism to pay his expenses. He lived on meager pay over the next several years. Even after his great literary and lecture-circuit success in the late nineteenth century, he continued to have difficulty investing wisely. In later life he had very public and large debts, and he was forced to work, often much harder than he wanted, to make ends meet for his family.

Clemens had made a plan to sell his silver stock shares when Nevada became a state. His rapid and large gains stoked a sense of invincibility. Soon he deviated from his stock sales plan, stopped paying attention to the market fundamentals, and found himself virtually broke.

Clemens was by no means the first or last person to succumb to mining stock excitement. The World’s Work, an investment periodical published decades later, in the early 1900s, was beset by letters from investors asking for advice on mining stocks. The magazine’s response to these letters was straightforward:  "Emotion plays too large a part in the business of mining stocks. Enthusiasm, lust for gain, gullibility are the real bases of this trading. The sober common sense of the intelligent businessman has no part in such investment." (from Meir Statman)

While the focus of market manias changes - mining, biotech, Chinese stocks, housing, etc… - the outline of a speculative bubbles remains remarkably similar over the centuries.  Today's newsletter examines the latest research into speculative bubbles and looks at how we can apply that knowledge, with examples of the recent booms (bubbles?) in Chinese stocks and Biotech.  This newsletter is much longer than usual letter, in part because the topic is both complex and important.  Skip ahead to the end for the Chinese and Biotech conclusions.  A more thorough treatment of bubbles is in my next book, coming out in late 2015.  

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April 05, 2015

Belief, Rigidity, and the Power of Critical Thinking

“Herbalife: the customers are fictitious, the business opportunity is a scam, the university degree is a fraud.”
~ Bill Ackman

Multilevel marketing preys on a suspension of disbelief.  The radio show “This American Life” ran a report on a multilevel marketing venture called “WakeUpNow” (WUN).  WUN’s business was very difficult for the reporters to ascertain.  It appeared to be cultivating a positive belief that one could convince others to hold the same positive belief (and pay for a monthly subscription while doing so).  The radio story about the company reveals the psychology behind the multi-level marketing of belief.  The company now appears shuttered.

Herbalife (HLF) is the best-known multi-level marketing company.  Bill Ackman, a successful hedge fund manager, took a $1 billion short position in HLF in 2012.  He claimed that Herbalife is multi-level marketing scam that preys on the poor and the ignorant.  Others joined him. Per The Atlantic magazine in 2014, critics claim “Herbalife is targeting groups who are easily victimized by false promises of riches.”  On the other side, Carl Icahn accumulated a 17% stake in Herbalife and claimed it was a legitimate business.  

Again according to The Atlantic, “Fundamentally, Herbalife targets our cognitive weaknesses, though which weaknesses is a subject of debate.”  HLF is not unlike many other businesses (payday loans, tobacco, etc…) that prey on biases.    HLF and WUN are selling positive belief – the belief that one can get rich through effort and chutzpah.  

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March 01, 2015

Intellectual Imposters, Greece, and Emotional ETFs

As a psychiatrist I’ve worked at the fringes of human experience, and I've come to believe that it’s in those edge cases that we sometimes learn the most about ourselves.

Imagine awakening from a concussion to find that your spouse has been replaced by an imposter.  Besides a minor headache you have no other problems - just that one.  A stranger is pretending to be your spouse.  She looks, talks, and lives exactly like your spouse, but you know - deep down - she’s not your spouse.  Of course it doesn’t make sense intellectually that your spouse was replaced by a double, but you absolutely feel that way.  

Capgras syndrome is the name for this disorder, and it is characterized by a delusional belief that a loved one has been replaced by an imposter.  The feelings of strangeness win out over the intellectual understanding that this person looks and acts identically to your spouse.

For those with Capgras Syndrome, a break in brain circuitry disconnects the facial recognition area from the limbic system.   The face of a loved one usually elicits an emotional response - joy, excitement, love.  But after a blow to the head (or other neurological issue), this feeling is no longer experienced.  Patients see their spouse with their eyes, but they don’t feel anything.  In fact, while the skin of a normal person shows evidence of physiological arousal (slight sweating) when the image of a loved one is viewed, the skin conductance of those with Capgras’ Syndrome stays flatlined.  

Because Capgras’ sufferers see the exact person (“yes, she looks just like my wife”) but don’t feel recognition (“I know she’s not my wife”), a battle ensues between reason and emotion in the brain.  You might expect them to get on with life, living with the intellectual assurance that this person clearly must be their spouse.  When everyone around them insists “this is your spouse, not a fake!” – that should hold some weight.  But the brain accepts emotional input as superior to visual/intellectual input, and the patient remains doubting. 

Because the Capgras’ patient feels no connection with the loved one, the only rational explanation (to the brain) is that she must be an imposter, a double.  And the mind tends to attribute sinister motives to the imposter: “What did she do to my real wife?!” which can lead to violent behavior.  An elaborate story is fabricated out of a simple disconnect.

But Capgras patients are not always upset by the imposters.  One man with Capgras reportedly confessed to his priest that he had repeatedly been unfaithful to his wife – he had been sleeping with his wife’s doubles.

As investors we are often confronted with what we know to be true intellectually versus what we feel emotionally.  “I know this market is overvalued on a historical P/E basis, but I feel like it will still go up.” Even as experienced investors who know we should rely on the intellectual assessments, the pull of emotional reasoning - reinforced by the media - is strong.  As you can see in our ETF model below, the best investing opportunities come when we trade against both the emotions and the intellect of the media.  This week’s newsletter examines the battle of reason and emotion, how that plays out in events such as a potential Greek default, and the cycles of belief that drive ETF prices.

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January 30, 2015

Magical Markets, Swiss Franc, and Social Earnings Forecasts

We realise that you will think your own experience while watching magic is unique to you, but we know that, in general, everyone thinks in more or less the same way.  Even as it gets harder to apply a technological edge, applying a psychological edge offers us nearly limitless possibilities.
~ David Blaine

In his TED talk "How I held my breath for 17 minutes," magician and endurance performer David Blaine recalls several of his jaw-dropping performances.  How magicians misdirect the attention and perceptions of groups has lessons for investors, which we will explain deeper in this newsletter.

One of the wonderful things about the art of magic is that it doesn’t really matter where the trapdoor is.  That’s not the secret.  The secret is that magicians influence what you think by using your own preconceived ideas of the world around you to amaze you.
~ David Blaine

Gustav Kuhn, a cognitive psychologist and magician, studies how magic tricks work.  In one study Kuhn threw a ball into the air.  When it came back down he caught it, and he threw it back up in the air, his eyes following it up.  He did this twice, and on the third throw he pretended to throw it up while his eyes tracked the invisible arc of its course. Two thirds of the participants reported seeing the ball vanish in mid-air, even though it never left his hand.  In a second condition, he pretended to throw the ball in the air, but instead of tracking it with his eyes, he stared at the ball in his hand.  In that condition only one-third of the subjects believed he had thrown the ball into the air.  Participants misperceived the actual event based on their expectations, as set by the magician.

According to Kuhn, "Even though the ball never left the hand, the reason people saw it leave is because they expected the ball to leave the hand. It's the beliefs about what should happen that override the actual visual input."

As humans we are hardwired to perceive patterns and to develop beliefs that even reality cannot shake.  Magicians learn how to set beliefs, misdirect attention, and trick our senses.  Some of their tricks parallel the ways in which markets collectively fool investors.

In today’s newsletter we review what we can learn from magicians, the untethering of the Swiss Franc (CHF), this weeks’ tech stock earnings, recent quantitative stock results, and when we should believe our market perceptions versus when we should doubt them.  As usual it's a fairly long newsletter today, so feel free to skip ahead to the topics or images of interest.

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January 04, 2015

Ruble, Oil, Chinese Stocks, & Evolving with Sentiment Regimes

One thing: you have to walk, and create the way by your walking; you will not find a ready-made path. It is not so cheap, to reach to the ultimate realization of truth. You will have to create the path by walking yourself; the path is not ready-made, lying there and waiting for you. It is just like the sky: the birds fly, but they don't leave any footprints. You cannot follow them; there are no footprints left behind.
~ Osho

It’s been over a decade since MarketPsych set out to decipher how sentiment impacts global markets.  We dove into text-analytics in 2004 after we saw research indicating that - even when the overall payoff odds are known by investors, they will often choose investments with lower (or even negative) payoffs due to the words used to describe such investments.  Such frenzies of excitement and despair about markets - leading to wealth-destroying investor behavior - are expressed in social and news media, and they seemed to us (and many others) to be correlated with market price patterns.  We realized that price and fundamental data wasn't enough.  We wanted to understand markets on the level of group behavior - consensus and the information flow that drives it.  

After good preliminary results from trading social media sentiment on paper from 2006-2008, we ran the MarketPsy Long-Short Fund LP - the first social media-based hedge fund - from 2008-2010.  There were some media reports on our fund with an interview here and an overview here.  But while our trading was profitable - our fund beat the S&P 500 by 24% over its lifetime and it beat its benchmark by even more - our ability to keep our tech operations capitalized through the financial crisis was not.   Turning away from fund management and into data distribution and research, we were fortunate to enter into a partnership with Thomson Reuters, pairing our unique style of analytics with their world-class project management, data handling expertise, and information flow.

As we look back over a decade of our development, we see exciting changes ahead.  We're planning to release important new products in 2015, and every week we're finding novel insights into the role of sentiment and information in driving asset prices.  

In today's newsletter we explore how sentiment impacts markets with examples from Russia, Crude Oil, and the Chinese stock market.  We then explore how sentiment is itself dynamic.  The best investing strategies differ in bull versus bear markets, and this excellent Thomson Reuters white paper reveals a dynamic technique to take advantage of this effect.  We then explore how emotionality among investors, versus the analytical discussions of fundamentals, is actually one of the best predictors of stock prices.  Goal setting for investors is far different than for people in other fields - we wrap-up with a guide to investment goal-setting for 2015.

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