Blogs | May 23, 2011

What football can teach us about investing

With interest rates very low in Europe, the UK and the US, some argue we must “do something” to get a decent return on cash savings. But this may not be the best option, the world of football offers some perspective on this conundrum.

We've got to do something, don't we?
Now the northern hemisphere football season is almost over, we can look forward to the usual spate of sackings of managers. We can also look forward to something else too – that such sackings, on average, won't work. There is now robust evidence from the Netherlands, Italy and Belgium that changing the manager may do nothing to improve team performance. This corroborates with billionaire investor Warren Buffett's famous saying: "when a boss with a good reputation joins a firm with a bad reputation, it is the firm that keeps its reputation." If sacking managers doesn't work, why do club owners do it?

Sometimes it's better to stand still
One reason lies in another strange aspect of football – how goalkeepers fail to save penalty kicks. A team of Israeli economists have found that keepers very often dive either left or right although they would have more chance of saving the kick if they stood still. So why do they move? It's because of the action bias. When we are faced with uncertainty, we feel the need to do something. Just as goalkeepers feel the need to dive, so club owners feel the need to change manager. There's a second reason, which arises from one of the most ubiquitous irrationalities of all – over-confidence. We tend to believe that our next big decision will be right – even if our past decisions have been stupid. So club owners think they have the ability to find the right manager, even though their previous appointments were duds.

In investing, is being active better?
Football club owners are not uniquely ill-informed – we are all prone to make the same mistakes they do. And these mistakes can be costly. A classic paper by Terrance Odean and Brad Barber, two US economists, found that the most active share market investors on average earned lower returns than less active ones. The same researchers found in a different paper that overconfidence – the belief one can spot the next winning stock – can also lose us money. I fear that this is a particular danger right now, and not just for equity traders.

How to respond to poor performance off the field
Investors in the UK, US and euro area are all facing the same problem – returns on cash tend to be negative in real terms. This is because short-term interest rates are below the inflation rate. It's tempting to respond to this poor performance in the same way that football club owners respond to a poorly performing manager – by getting rid off him. Think twice about this temptation. For one thing, cash is still a relatively safe asset. The most you can lose on it over the next 12 months is the difference between the one or two per cent return and the inflation rate. Given that inflation doesn't vary much when compared with movements in share markets, your maximum loss is only a few per cent. Shares and commodities are so volatile that it is quite possible to suffer much larger losses.

Interest rates are low for a reason
And for another thing, low expected returns on cash should, in theory, mean low expected returns on other assets, especially shares. Interest rates are low because central bankers, at least in the UK or US, are pessimistic about the outlook for economic growth (just as interest rates are high in countries in Asia where the growth outlook is strong). And poor economic growth could mean poor returns on shares. Low interest rates in themselves, then, may not be a reason for you to change your investment policy. Doing nothing is a perfectly reasonable possibility. Just remember the words of the French philosopher Blaise Pascal: "All human evil comes from a single cause, man's inability to sit still in a room."


Chris Dillow
Chris Dillow

Investors Chronicle writer and economist

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