More often than not, our client meetings begin with the question – “Market kya lagta hain? (What is your view of the markets?)”, off late more on whether the market rally will sustain given continued concerns on the patchy economic recovery, risk of a second wave, uncertain US policies post elections, uncertainty around vaccine availability, India-China border conflict among other things. Whilst we wish we had answers to these, the reality is we don’t. This brilliant piece by Anand Sridharan helps us understand why we should acknowledge that many of these things will remain unknowable yet we have to get on with our investments in a way these investments turn out to be resilient even in the worst of outcomes.
He starts with this quote from Warren Buffet:
“What you really want to do in investments is figure out what is important and knowable. If it is unimportant and unknowable, you forget about it. What you talk about is important [macro factors] but, in my view, it is not knowable.” – Warren Buffett, in 1998
Anand makes a bigger point that whilst some of us do acknowledge that these factors are unknowable, it is bloody hard to practice as our subconscious continuously attempts to seek answers to these and then justify our actions accordingly.
“Many of us claim to ignore or downplay unknowable factors, especially since we have the backing of investing’s patron saints to do so. However, at a subconscious level, very few of us are truly indifferent about it. Accepting ignorance goes deeply against human nature. Our core learning OS is designed around spotting patterns (some non-existent), explaining them through stories (mostly fiction) and reinforcing them via confirmation and rationalization. It’s highly dissonant to not have any explanation whatsoever for the world around us. This mental void is unbearable.
Getting back to our example, we publicly admit that concerns pertain to unknowable external factors. We also acknowledge that best-in-class companies have a proven history of either overcoming such risks or managing them better than worse-run peers. However, saying so doesn’t imply acting so. Our subconscious beliefs overwhelm stated words. Deep down, we don’t treat ‘unknowables’ as unknown. We secretly fill up our discomforting void with theories, to minimize dissonance. We aren’t actually indifferent about exchange rates or macro outlook or nature of new normal. We harbour definitive beliefs, even if we don’t publicly express them since we can’t fully back them up or don’t want to appear more oracular than Buffett.
Unstated beliefs are doubly dangerous because we have to find an alternative justification. When we walk away from reasonable bargains saying “If only price was 20% lower”, the real reason is rarely valuation. It’s a fudge for having definitive views about unknowable factors without being able to express them. Subconsciously, we view everything as both knowable and known. Our cleverly hidden beliefs about rates or risks prevent action, but we use lower price as a cover. One giveaway is the notion of a moving target. When 20% lower is quickly reached amidst panic, suddenly it becomes “another 20% lower”. Another giveaway is setting an absurdly cheap price rather than a reasonably cheap one. Fundamental concerns about unknowable factors masquerade as pricing quibbles and get in the way of the whole greedy-fearful bit.
While there’s a lot of literature on knowing one’s limitations, circle of competence, too-tough bucket etc, I don’t think enough has been said on what it takes to practice these. They extract a psychological toll that takes a peculiar temperament to bear. Saying “I don’t know” is the easy part. Not caring about not knowing is the hard part. It’s more fundamental than merely feeling stupid or negligent. It goes against the grain of how we process the world around us, by admitting to ourselves that:
· I cannot make sense of what’s around me.
· It’s not for want of trying. In fact, I’m done trying.
· Yes, it’s discomforting as f&*k to have a void in my brain.
· No, I’m not filling it up with made-up s&*t just for false comfort.
· By the way, I’m going ahead with consequential actions despite my mental void.
In my experience, it’s rare to be able to genuinely make peace with ignorance. It’s an aspect of temperament that’s as valuable as it’s atypical. Acting with conviction amidst turmoil requires us to blank out large parts of what’s happening or may happen around us, so long as a few critical pieces are in order. And boy, do our buggy brains hate blanks. Like a hole in the head.”
If you want to read our other published material, please visit https://marcellus.in/blog/
Note: the above material is neither investment research, nor financial advice. Marcellus does not seek payment for or business from this publication in any shape or form. Marcellus Investment Managers is regulated by the Securities and Exchange Board of India as a provider of Portfolio Management Services. Marcellus Investment Managers is also regulated in the United States as an Investment Advisor.
Copyright © 2022 Marcellus Investment Managers Pvt Ltd, All rights reserved.