wallstchristmasThis story from the wonderful Malcolm Gladwell is the longest and most challenging of the 4 reads I am presenting this week. It profiles two brilliant investors, Nassim Taleb and Victor Niederhoffer. It has many layers. Below I highlight what I believe to be the critical lesson for individual investors. That lesson is that we want to believe that there are those that will read the tea leaves and help guide us to the appropriate place to invest. The problem is news is random and nobody can see into the future: the prescient are few!

That is why it is important to diversify across a wide range of investment classes and stay to a plan!

A quick skim of the italicized sections below will dramatically hit home the point:

Niederhoffer, like Buffett and Soros, was a brilliant man. He had a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago. He had pioneered the idea that through close mathematical analysis of patterns in the market an investor could identify profitable anomalies.

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When Niederhoffer went to Harvard as an undergraduate, he showed up for the very first squash practice and announced that he would someday be the best in that sport; and, sure enough, he soon beat the legendary Shariff Khan to win the U.S. Open squash championship. That was the kind of man Niederhoffer was.

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Despite his (Nassim Taleb) envy and admiration, he did not want to be Victor Niederhoffer — not then, not now, and not even for a moment in between. For when he looked around him, at the books and the tennis court and the folk art on the walls — when he contemplated the countless millions that Niederhoffer had made over the years — he could not escape the thought that it might all have been the result of sheer, dumb luck.

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Taleb knew how heretical that thought was. Wall Street was dedicated to the principle that when it came to playing the markets there was such a thing as expertise, that skill and insight mattered in investing just as skill and insight mattered in surgery and golf and flying fighter jets. Those who had the foresight to grasp the role that software would play in the modern world bought Microsoft in 1985, and made a fortune. Those who understood the psychology of investment bubbles sold their tech stocks at the end of 1999 and escaped the Nasdaq crash. Warren Buffett was known as the “sage of Omaha” because it seemed incontrovertible that if you started with nothing and ended up with billions then you had to be smarter than everyone else: Buffett was successful for a reason. Yet how could you know, Taleb wondered, whether that reason was responsible for someone’s success, or simply a rationalization invented after the fact?

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That is the lesson of Taleb and Niederhoffer, and also the lesson of our volatile times. There is more courage and heroism in defying the human impulse, in taking the purposeful and painful steps to prepare for the unimaginable.

Last fall, Niederhoffer sold a large number of options, betting that the markets would be quiet, and they were, until out of nowhere two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. “I was exposed. It was nip and tuck.” Niederhoffer shook his head, because there was no way to have anticipated September 11th. “That was a totally unexpected event.”

Blowing Up