Your Biases Cost You — A Lot!

One of the reasons we moved from the academic world to the investment world was the potential for profiting from widely-held misperceptions.  Such situations abound in the current political and market environment.  Investors who understand this can have a field day.


In the study of economics, political science, and public policy formation there is a body of work supported by evidence.  There are also areas of disagreement.  A student entering the first course in these subjects comes without knowledge, but with plenty of biases about "how the system works."

It is easily demonstrable (and the subject for more articles) that those who study these subjects find agreement on a wide range of topics.  The experts may seem to disagree, and they do on many theoretical offshoots and specific implications.  It is more interesting for them to debate the disagreements.

Meanwhile, the average reader (or investor) did not take these classes, or long ago forgot what they learned.  This provides an interesting opportunity for the Internet age, where bloggers and mainstream media alike are hungry for content.

One simply takes some plausible "everyman" idea, then takes some development in the news, and spins it to the lowest common denominator of understanding.  Since most people share the underlying value bias, they uncritically accept the conclusion.  Your blog or column is popular.  You get acclaim and high ratings.  Life is good!

The Case in Point

Yesterday we wrote about the SEC opinion letter, which attempted to improve both accuracy in valuation of assets and visibility to the investor.  If anyone takes the time to read the entirety of the letter, it is obvious that whatever method chosen by a company and its accountants must be revealed and described in full.  There is complete visibility of method and conclusion.  Those with a value bias do not quote the key parts of the letter, as follows:

If you conclude that your use of unobservable inputs is material,
please disclose in your MD&A, in a manner most useful to your
particular facts and circumstances, how you determined them and how the
resulting fair value of your assets and liabilities and possible
changes to those values, impacted or could impact your results of
operations, liquidity, and capital resources. Depending on your
circumstances, the following disclosure and discussion points may be
relevant as you prepare your MD&A:

  • The amount of assets and liabilities you measured using
    significant unobservable inputs (Level 3 assets and liabilities) as a
    percentage of the total assets and liabilities you measured at fair
  • The amount and reason for any material increase or
    decrease in Level 3 assets and liabilities resulting from your transfer
    of assets and liabilities from, or into, Level 1 or Level 2.
  • If you transferred a material amount of assets or liabilities into Level 3 during the period, a discussion of:

    • the significant inputs that you no longer consider to be observable; and
    • any
      material gain or loss you recognized on those assets or liabilities
      during the period, and, to the extent you exclude that amount from the
      realized/unrealized gains (losses) line item in the Level 3
      reconciliation, the amount you excluded.


  • With regard to Level 3 assets or liabilities, a discussion of, to the extent material:

    • whether
      realized and unrealized gains (losses) affected your results of
      operations, liquidity or capital resources during the period, and if
      so, how;
    • the reason for any material decline or increase in the fair values; and
    • whether
      you believe the fair values diverge materially from the amounts you
      currently anticipate realizing on settlement or maturity. If so,
      disclose why and provide the basis for your views.


  • The
    nature and type of assets underlying any asset-backed securities, for
    example, the types of loans (sub-prime, Alt-A, or home equity lines of
    credit) and the years of issuance as well as information about the
    credit ratings of the securities, including changes or potential
    changes to those ratings.

An objective reader of this letter might well question a pundit who suggests that something in this process reduces visibility to shareholders.  The idea that it encourages fraud is just silly.

The Value Biases in Place

There are several easily identifiable biases:

  • Markets always yield the correct valuation, regardless of liquidity.  Anyone with actual trading experience knows this to be false.  There can be many reasons for buyers to step back, often based upon a lack of information or guessing that others will not buy either.  The Fed, through a number of measures, and the SEC, have both recognized this, attempting to stabilize markets until there is more visibility and more trading.
  • The SEC and the Fed are trying to fool people.  One should recognize this as an assumption, not a conclusion based upon evidence.  Try doing a critical reading of those  taking this viewpoint.  What evidence is there  that this is what these agencies actually do?  We might add that our own  study of government (based upon forty years of experience) yields a quite different conclusion.  Most of the participants are non-partisan, senior officials who are attempting to get it right.  Unlike the pundits playing to an audience, they are genuine experts in their field.
  • Companies lie.  Accountants back them up.  This value bias stems from the 1999-2000 bubble experience.  Wall Street pundits can invoke these examples and everyone can remember them.  Did any of these pundits note the passage of Sarbannes-Oxley?  Did they notice the death sentence delivered to Arthur Andersen?  Do they believe that these changes have had no effect upon corporate and accounting behavior?  Our own experience as a member of the board of a public company and as a reader of many corporate reports suggests a very different conclusion.


This article from Accrued Interest provides some great information about the liquidity in many bonds and the issues in marking to market (although the author may not share our conclusions).  The CDO liquidity is even worse.

Tonight’s discussion on Kudlow has an interesting exchange (starting at 4:15) between Barry Ritholtz, who believes that the SEC opinion promotes fraud, and Vince Farrell who makes an insistent rebuttal.  (Both are colleagues on RealMoney, and frequently offer valuable insights).  Vince invokes the example of AIG and their accountants as refutation, an example we have cited at "A Dash." 

One might also compare the conclusion with Barry’s take on home prices.  He seems to feel that this market, despite millions of trades, does not accurately reflect pricing because some homeowners are unrealistic in their offers.  The implication is that distressed trading in CDO’s, based upon few trades, is valid, while home prices, based upon many trades, are not.


There are many investors who are currently acting out their biases.  In a world where one is free to reject any piece of data as somehow flawed, the initial value biases govern behavior.

At "A Dash" we have attempted to show a powerful and ongoing effort by various parts of government to deal with the relevant issues.  We expect each of these initiatives to have an effect, with a strong cumulative effect. 

Meanwhile, investors and managers rejecting stocks and going to cash are not just fighting a Fed that is cutting rates, something we warned about.  They are fighting a creative Fed that is willing to employ new tools never before considered.  They are fighting the stimulus package, the SEC, expansion of Fannie, Freddie, and the FHA.  The Frank/Dodd legislation will be the next battleground.  If the Bush Administration agrees to a compromise, it will be another significant effect on housing supply and demand.

It is so easy to point out problems, and so difficult to see the solutions.

You may also like


  • Harmso April 2, 2008  

    From my expereience, real “marked-to-market” can only be done at standard instruments with high market participation.
    That’s not even the case for small cap stocks. And even for the midcap and such you have leeway with bid-ask spreads and similar. (In IFRS, Don’t know about USGAAP)
    Everything else is essentially marked-to-model. Either by drawing comparisons to “similar” instruments or trading models etc.
    Those papers in distress were mostly never marked-to-market in any real sense anyway.
    You rightly point out that one has to access critically what the whole letter states and not only parts. The same is even more true for financial statements of companies.
    The discussion about marked-to-market is really important in my view. I must say I am still buidling my opinion on this point. But from what I read so far both sides of the argument are flawed.
    First. The discussion, if reliable prices exist for some markets at the moment or not. See my comment above how wide range real marked-to-market really is.
    Second: There is considerable leeway in your own inputs to the model. (If you are even using the right model that is)
    Third: Of course traders and companies have strong incentives to post favorable numbers. This is btw also empirically proven many times if I remember my days in college correctly. Accountants try to work against those incentives. But from my experience, obviously most traders do not really cooperate very much in explaining an accountant his model.
    Also people commonly mistake what “probably” the intention of the SEC was with what the real consequence will be on this highly dynamic system called the financial markets.
    I have to think about this a little longer but in my opinion the SEC Letter is widening the room for the firms in a way which might backfire. The Points for more disclosure on certain topics are definetly welcome but I fear that without actual trading experience it will be very hard for most investors to realls understand those numbers and it could project a kind of false transperancy.

  • Barry Ritholtz April 2, 2008  

    I said nothing of the sort —
    I was discussing the psychology of pricing — no transactions. Read the piece you linked to, as well as the original piece it referenced from Sept 07.
    Why is it that you specialize in misstating my views?

  • RB April 2, 2008  

    I admit to finding this post needlessly provocative because I do not find Barry Ritholtz implying that homebuyers are offering unrealistic purchase prices.

  • Jeff Miller April 2, 2008  

    Barry — We always welcome any corrections, especially when they are substantive and to the point. Telling people to re-read your article does not qualify. It is also not appropriate to make a blanket characterization about “misstating” your views. That is ad hominem, not on the merits.
    The question is simple: Do you believe that reported home price sales accurately reflect the market? If not, what other measure would you use?
    In your article you writes as follows: “Prices have failed to come down enough to jump start more activity. Sellers have been stubbornly sticking to their imagined top tick prices of 2005. Thus, Supply remains high, and if we believe the NAR or OFHEO, prices have slipped only slightly. Econ 101 informs us that until prices fall appreciably, the inventory situation will not improve.”
    Briefly put, you think offers and the resulting pricing are unrealistic. It is not a misstatement of your viewpoint. You then use this interpretation to predict that home prices need to fall appreciably, suggesting a disparity between the market price and some underlying value.
    Readers must decide for themselves whether this is an apt comparison to the SEC liquidity/value issue. For me it stood out because I am already working on a piece related to your home pricing article and Econ 101.
    And btw, this is not just an observation about Barry. Many of those writing about the housing market seem quite confident that current prices are, somehow, misleading.

  • VennData April 2, 2008  

    You use the narrative of the new student to begin a discussion that takes points from the SEC letter but do not see the awful result of this capricious methodology.
    The new student in accounting – whether they end up in corporate or public – learns their first day of class that financial information must be relevant, reliable, and prepared in a consistent manner.
    This regulatory allowance defies the consistency principle since the entity creates their own rules. Furthermore the timing of this regulatory change will not allow for the creation of a dependable, congruent set of guidelines.
    The effect will be that financial statements will not be constant across entities, industries, nor regions.
    It’s a fudge to try to allow the current administration to be able to say they’re sticking to their free market principles.
    Why not allow homeowners to set the price of their own homes to get another HELOC?

  • jcfogerty April 4, 2008  

    This article is a perfect example of why ‘A Dash’ is one of my favorite financial blogs. Great insight.