This looks good, too Good

Readers of "A Dash" do not need us to tell them the old common-sense idea, "If it sounds too good to be true…."

Or so we would think.

Meanwhile, those watching financial television are bombarded with self-serving ads from brokerage firms suggesting that the intelligent viewer can design his/her own trading system with their free software.

Other ads offer a pre-packaged approach, like Robert Taylor and the Xyber9 system.  We can’t find the specific claims on the website, but the TV ads talk about accuracy in the 80’s.  It is a great marketing program, with references to a Nobel Prize nomination and the Harvard Business Review.

So we wonder….

Analyzing Trading Systems

A standard method for analyzing a system includes some back testing.  Everyone does it, so the question is not "whether?" but "how?".

When we were developing and analyzing trading systems in the late 80’s, there was an interesting phenomenon.

Every system we saw "predicted" the Crash of ’87.

We should say "post-dicted."  Most of us now understand why, since we have all read Fooled by Randomness ( on our recommended reading list if you missed it).   If a system developer did not forecast the Crash, that system would never have seen the light of day.  It certainly was not presented to trading firms like ours.

The founder of  our group, who assembled a team of top options traders at the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE), was Ralph Katz.  In the days before computer-generated option prices, Ralph could glance at a complicated page of quotes and tell you which specific prices were out of line.  Ralph understood immediately why the system development process might be wrong.  He would insist that the system developer go to a different time period, (e.g., Did the system capture the Gulf War Decline?),  one not contemplated by the original developer.

Ralph’s approach is now used by the best system testers.

Analyzing Systems

When you get a system that seems "too good", it is time to take a close look.  CXO Advisory Group, one of our featured sites, does a great job of determining "guru grades."   Taylor’s idea of using gravitational pull to predict stock performance was intellectually unsatisfying for us, so we asked CXO for an opinion.  They identified the strange definition of "trend" used by Taylor and concluded as follows:

In summary, Robert Taylor’s accuracy rate probably derives not from forecasting
  ability but from defining targets that are very hard to miss. The accuracy rate
  seems high only if one ignores the peculiar way he defines trends.

Consumers Do Not Understand

The key to building a successful investment management business is marketing, and that seems to include making big claims.  The consumer is looking for a home run.  This usually means looking at what worked last year, and chasing that performance.

In a very helpful and honest article, Barry Ritholtz described the process of presenting his methods on a road show.  (Thanks to Barry for taking the time to send the pointer for an article we remembered.)  Barry wrote as follows:

Money raisers and some GPs have long ago figured this out. You have
a few choices: you can answer the investors’ questions honestly — or
to quote Ray Davies, you can give the people what they want (or think they want):

expect gains of 35-45%, with minimal risk or leverage. Our black box
algorithms  have been backtested, and generate better numbers than
that, but we would rather under-promise and outperform."

Read the entire article for the full flavor of this process.  Based upon our own experience, it is a very realistic account.  This method of choosing managers has led many to illusory low-risk returns based upon very high leverage and minimal true advantage (alpha).

If the big fund of fund managers are using this approach, imagine the challenge for the individual investor.

A Dash of Realism

The best investment managers, those that we admire greatly like Warren Buffett and Bill Miller, have periods where their style does not seem to be working.  That says more about the market than it does about the manager.

Any investor who wants to trade equities with little turnover (meaning low transaction costs) needs to understand what results qualify as strong.  Beating the market by several points a year is excellent, and it probably comes with some volatility.

TCA-ETF Update

Each Thursday we have been providing the rankings of the top ETF’s in our universe along with a (slightly delayed) account of our actual trades.  We define a "cycle" as beginning with the last day where we were completely out of the market.  The current cycle, the third we have reported, shows results that lag the S&P (we were a little slow getting back in — the TCA does not follow the "Gong Model" which was faster) and a little better than the Nasdaq.  There are many attractive sectors right now, including foreign ETF’s and energy holdings.



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  • Mike C February 28, 2008  

    “The key to building a successful investment management business is marketing, and that seems to include making big claims. The consumer is looking for a home run. This usually means looking at what worked last year, and chasing that performance.”
    I’m not sure this is 100% the case but what do I know as I only have a handful of clients presently.
    I think you have to distinguish the potential customer base and the product being offered. I think there might be a difference in expectations between managing separate accounts for the regular guy/gal with a 50K, 100K, 200K IRA account versus a high-octane hedge fund for an ultra-high net worth investor looking for maximum performance.
    Since day 1, I’ve followed a philosophy of underpromise and overdeliver in terms of return expectations and communication of my investment philosophy on a repeated basis, with the thought I want long-term committed investors, not performance chasers who will look for something else after the first 3-6 month bad stretch.
    Now I’ve had a really good 6 month stretch especially compared to the market. Some of my bigger positions are Fairholme Fund, PIMCO Commodity Real Return, Berkshire, Chesapeake Energy, and XTO Energy. Instead of taking this 6 month stretch and trying to imply I can do this every 6 months on a sustained basis, I am seriously thinking about sending out a note that basically says although I’m pleased with recent performance, I absolutely do NOT see it as sustainable over a longer time frame.
    I think/hope that most clients appreciate that type of sincerity/honesty and will stick with you during the inevitable 6 month stretch when you underperform.
    “Meanwhile, those watching financial television are bombarded with self-serving ads from brokerage firms suggesting that the intelligent viewer can design his/her own trading system with their free software.”
    I think the vast majority (75 to 90%) of amateur individual investors who go this route will likely find out within a 2-3 year time frame, that it isn’t as easy as the advertisements would lead one to believe, and they will be back looking for a good advisor.

  • mrstock February 29, 2008  

    Xyber9 is really a tweaked version of the cycle formula that physicist JM Hurst used in 1970. Robert Taylor makes no bones about that; check his website. Remember JM Hurst was acting in an era before computers. What Taylor appears to have done is computerise the logic and monetise it. Try getting your hands on a copy of ‘The Profit Magic of Stock Transaction Timing’ Traders Press/ JM Hurst for further details and how to do it yourself. It’s available for $20 on Amazon! This isn’t rocket science, although Taylor would have us believe it.