Dan Williams, CFA, CFP, Investment Analyst
With spring comes my favorite time of the year. Yes, the weather improves and the days get longer. However, for me, it is baseball season and corresponding fantasy baseball season that excites me. Baseball more than the other major sports is a game of statistics. It is engineered to be a series of one on one duels between a hitter and a pitcher such that individual contributions can be isolated. However, much like investing, a focus on the short-term and randomness leads even the most astute into a false knowledge of skill, and it is only through long-term analysis can truer knowledge be gained.
Consider a single at-bat between a hitter and a pitcher. The outcome is going to be a hit, an out, or a walk. If a hit occurs, especially if a home run, it is assumed that at least at that moment the hitter is very good and the pitcher is very bad. If an out occurs it is assumed the reverse. If a walk occurs the hitter has managed the least favorable of the positive outcomes and the pitcher has let the least unfavorable of negative outcomes happen. There is additional analysis that can be taken into the semantics of these three outcomes but the point remains that we have a data point of an individual success or failure. Similarly, in investing over the course of a quarter or year of performance of an investment fund we have an outperformance, underperformance, or an approximate market return relative to the corresponding benchmark and again additional stats can be gleaned from the performance such as standard deviation, upside capture, or attribution by sector selection vs. security selection.
In both cases after a short time period, a game for a hitter/starting pitcher or a quarter of performance for an investment fund, the temptation is very strong to extrapolate the just observed outcomes into the future. A successful hitter could have been lucky or was going against a poor pitcher (or a good pitcher who was having an off day). Similarly, an investment fund could have made a few lucky stock picks or was in a market environment that simply worked well with the strategy’s style of investing.
So does this mean we ignore the statistics of the short-term? That is, of course, foolish as the short-term is what happens as we build the data for the long-term. We always want to know what happened as it helps guide us to what will happen. It is simply wise to temper the conclusions we can draw from data over short periods. It is also humbling to know that even with ample data that can provide very close to proof of past greatness, it can never be fully relied on to provide future insight. At this point, I would say we have enough data to say Babe Ruth was a very good baseball player. However, he has been dead for about 70 years (so he is in a bit of a slump) and even if we through the miracle of science could resurrect a 30-year-old Babe Ruth, it is not a certainty he would achieve the same greatness in today’s baseball landscape. Similarly, an investment fund or strategy type that achieved great success over the long-term in the past may not achieve it in the future.
So where does this leave us? The recognition of great skill recognized solely in the short-term is unreliable and the great confidence we can achieve through the very long-term analysis thereof is not very useful. This leaves us striving for the middle ground. We look at performance data of at least a few market cycles and we additionally gain extra insight through qualitative data by talking to our investment managers and understanding the how of what they do. Through this process, we strive to send the right people up to bat and hopefully, we deliver more winning than losing seasons.
The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Brinker Capital, Inc., a registered investment advisor.