Using Your NCAA Bracket to Help Your Investing

Regular readers know that I love using sports to find investment insights. There are three reasons:

  1. Plentiful data – both before the event and afterwards;
  2. Specific odds from prediction markets and pundits – even better than we have in stocks;
  3. The comparison forces investors to abandon market preconceptions, thinking about questions in a different way.

What can we learn from the problem of filling out your NCAA bracket?

The Popular NCAA Upset

Investors who listen to the “bracketology pundits” for a few minutes will find it familiar. There are plenty of buzzwords and opinions, but little supporting data.

One popular theme is that you should search for a good upset in your brackets and the best place to start is when the Regional 5-seed plays the 12-seed. There is some logic here. Let’s look at the actual a priori odds for these games, taken from the excellent TeamRankings site:

These are the odds of advancing for each round, so the last column is “winning it all.”

5     Oklahoma     West     65.3%     34.1%     10.0%     4.2%     1.4%     0.5%

5     Cincinnati     East     61.5%     26.8%     11.6%     5.7%     2.3%     0.9%

5     Saint Louis     MidW     56.8%     14.4%     4.3%     1.6%     0.5%     0.2%

5     VCU         South     69.9%     37.5%     13.3%     6.4%     3.0%     1.2%

Using these percentages, which have proven accurate over time, what is the chance of all four five seeds wining?

That is an easy probability question. It is the product of the four percentages or about 16%. It would be very surprising if we did not see a 12 seed beat a 5 seed. The problem for figuring out your bracket is simple: Which one?

Investment Application

This same probability blunder is a daily feature in investment commentary. Instead of bogging down in the technical definitions, let me just call this backward reasoning. The pundit starts with a conclusion (like the 12 versus 5) and then grabs any single instance as a likely candidate.

To take one of many current examples, let us consider margin debt and market tops. Investors are bombarded with charts showing the history of market tops at times of high margin debt, implying that this is a high-risk factor. Try putting the question the other way:

In all of the occasions where margin debt reached a peak, what were the investment results? Bespoke Investment Group (via Jeff Saut and Raymond James) provide the results:


The popular margin debt meme is yet another misleading argument, a trap for investors who do not understand how to analyze causality. Here is an investment tip to save money:

Ignore the advice about margin debt. Make your decision on stock allocation based upon your personal circumstances. If you want to speculate on bad advice, just pick all of the twelve seeds in your bracket!

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  • Shelby March 30, 2014  

    Jeff, are you going to write something this week?! We missed your writing last week.

  • oldprof April 3, 2014  

    Shelby — Whenever I take some time off, there is a question. I always work every day, since I am following the market and monitoring trading. Sometimes I have time to write and sometimes not. I always expect to write….
    I need to figure out how to communicate this more effectively. Thanks for your nice comment and interest.