Monday, December 12, 2011

Stoken, Survival of the Fittest for Investors

Over the past few years, as academics have come to view markets as complex adaptive systems, Darwin’s ideas have worked their way into the mainstream financial literature. In Survival of the Fittest for Investors: Using Darwin’s Laws of Evolution to Build a Winning Portfolio (McGraw-Hill, 2012) Dick Stoken explores both the theory and practice of Darwinism as it applies to the individual investor.

Free markets, Stoken explains, use the same algorithm as evolution—search through potential designs, select the few that are good enough, then replicate or amplify them. Free markets are “littered with errors,”, but “each error, along the way, provides feedback so as to formulate a new trial until a solution is found.” (pp. 29-30) Moreover, similar to prey/predator models, “free markets fluctuate…. During the exuberant phase of the cycle, errors become embedded into the system and, at some point, interfere with its ability to self-regulate. Reversals are necessary to flush enough of the errors out so that the system can regain its former vitality.” (p. 31)

Stoken analyzes bubbles at some length and argues that the errors in the most recent financial crisis were not man-made. “If only X had done Y” is a misplaced criticism. The errors “were of the kind that living systems, operating via a trial-and-error process, typically make. Therefore, they could not, in an ordinary sense, be man-fixed.” The real error, he contends, was “in not allowing for error. … Our wealth-generating machine lowered its margin of safety drastically, leaving little room for anything to go wrong.” Stoken continues: “The more complex a system becomes, the greater the number of errors. Bubble time is also peak complexity time. The particular error doesn’t matter so much, as all roads lead to system failure. Much like Hercules in his battle with the nine-headed serpent Hydra, when Hercules cut off one head, two more would sprout; if we fixed one error, the problem shifted and another and more potent accident soon popped up.” (pp. 106-107)

What is an investor who accepts this view of the market to do? Of course, he has to adapt. Stoken offers several concrete options, from a passive diversified portfolio of alternative investments to a levered actively managed “combined assets” portfolio, from annual rebalancing to using a breakout system for buy and sell signals. He includes basic backtesting results for each strategy.

Survival of the Fittest for Investors is one of the “fittest,” best written investment books I’ve read in some time. The investor who is searching for a way to boost returns would do well to add it to his must-read list.

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