Jul

8

 "At the corner of William street and Exchange Place, we met F. He was once a man of wealth, but he had left it all in that same unfathomable abyss. He was a harmless but very disagreeable lunatic, a Cassandra who predicted nothing but evil." Ten Years in Wall Street, by Worthington Fowler, 1870

It's much easier to learn and remember from stories than from more traditional ways. This among other things is the basis of the most successful language programs, our most popular friends, and much of children's activities. It is also the basis for much of the best selling literature including Louis L'amour who describes himself as a storyteller and whose Western books have sold more, about 500 million copies, than all other writers of Westerns combined from the beginning of time.

One can agree that stories are a great teaching tool, but one must also note that they can be used to illustrate any point. And the problem with such stories is that there are enough of them that even the most specious promoter can haul out a few great predictions and stocks that show his greatness. It would be good, therefore, in telling stock market stories to include a moral that perhaps could be tested. I'll start the ball rolling with two stories.

Jim Lorie was one of the most successful speculators I ever knew. He passed away with a vast estate and he did it mainly on a teachers salary which was very modest in those days. His method was always to ask his friends for a good stock, buy and hold it, letting go only when it was bought out. He didn’t believe much in technical analysis and when I told him that I planned to start a firm to speculate based on the multivariate analysis of the predictive properties on one market on another, he told me that he recommended against it and that I should stick to mergers and acquisitions.

When he came to New York for Merrill board meetings he liked to come to our offices to relax. He always was very eloquent, and facile, indeed, he was the only one that could stop a faculty gathering in its tracks and have a hundred people crowded around him to hear his bon mots. He always had five jokes of a free market nature to share, as well as five books he had read that he could recommend. We always talked like two brothers and there was never a halt in our dialogue, which usually subsumed our great victory 10 years earlier in the Western Squash doubles, where he said that he must have been the better player because the opponents hit 95% of the balls to me. Or perhaps the conversation would turn to the macaque monkey I had as a pet that I named after him.

But this day, just before going to a board meeting at 1 pm, he became a bit tongue-tied and reticent for the first time. Finally he blurted it out, "Vic, you don’t have to accept this. But I'd like to participate in just 1% of your action for the rest of today. What do you say?"

I can’t leave this call for stories without relating one from the times that Sam's was founded, circa April 15, 1864. "On the first of April, the bull leader, Morse was at the height of his glory. Every stock that he touched had turned into gold for the fortunate buyers. Rock Island, Erie, Fort Wayne, Pittsburgh Ohio, and Mississippi certificates responded in succession to the wand of the great enchanter. … He fought the bears as one would his natural enemies and now throughout the whole market, it was in vain to search for any of that tribe of bears…. Alas, how changed from that Morse, who but the year before, had led his dashing ranks to the summits of the market. He departed from the arena, a stripped, penniless, heartless, stricken man. Out of the troops of wealthy friends, which but lately clustered about him, only one or two still clung to him (like Doc and Wiz might cling to me) … An appalling stillness, like that which precedes a tornado, followed the words ‘Morse and company had failed.’ "The board room seemed suddenly transformed into a cyclopean workshop where a hundred great trip hammers were being plied. Pillar after pillar toppled over, till the dome fell. A three-month mad revelry of speculations, in which were concentrated all the emotions, all the incidents of a century of sober, legitimate traffic, — then the dark dawn of another melancholy awakening. … A crowd of ruined operators reeled and served up to the rostrum, half crazed by their losses, and stupefied or maddened by drink, and the whole room rang with yells and curses.

"The space outside the railing was jammed with weary faces, on which was written only the word "ruin." Above all the chorus of execrations was heard the word "Morse." Human nature now showed its basest side. No epithet too vile with which to couple the name of the prostrate financier, (you can still find many of these on Elite, traded about me today). He had fallen like Lucifer in one day (on April 15, 1864, sort of the same as me on Oct 27, 1997).

"The men who but yesterday extolled him to the skies, now vied with each other in cursing him. The king of the market was a lurking fugitive. Men calling themselves gentlemen met him in the street, and showered abuse upon him. Shoulder hitters, who had lost some of their ill-gotten gains by his fall, sought him out, and struck him like a dog…. A few month more, and he lay upon his death bed in a second-class boarding house, and without means to pay for the common necessities of life.

"Even when he died, his landlady held his body for trifling debt (perhaps one of Artie's predecessors had to forcibly take the body to the morgue, as he often told me that he had performed this duty for many failed gamblers and that all of them died broke). It was only when some friend stepped forward and paid the sum, that the funeral rites could be performed over all that remained of what was once a king of Wall Street."

I believe I could always count on Dan Grossman, and one of my wives or daughters, or a collection of friends to save me from that suspended state should a similar hiatus be visited upon me.

The moral of these two stories is that all gamblers die broke and you should never get in over your head. Let us have more stories with testable morals.

George Criparacos adds:

It was a clear day, late spring, and we decided to go horseback riding on a farm, a little outside of St. Louis. I had never ridden a horse before, and they gave me an old horse on the premise that this horse had so much experience with first timers it would follow the rest of the pack without giving me a lot of trouble. So we rode off and my horse followed the rest with me trying to hold on. It was a nice feeling and a first hand-on experience of all the cowboy stories I had read as a boy.

A half hour later, with my back starting to ache, I was enjoying the sense of being under the clear sky when suddenly the horse stopped. My friends started picking at me, that by now I should have learned how to. But the horse refused to move. Then, without notice, it turned and started galloping as fast as it could. It was really scary. To this day I do not know how I managed to stay on the horse for the five long minutes it took to run back to the barn, elongated by the fact that besides being out of control I did not know where we were going.

We entered the barn and the horse stopped. I jumped off with my heartbeat at 200 only to hear my friends laughing, as they entered the barn behind me. And then it happened.

Clouds as green as a cucumber filled the sky. It was then that I realized what the expression "out of the blue" means. A hail storm with hailstones as big as an apple started. For the next half an hour, no one was laughing. We all realized what the horse had done, and under the protection of the barn stories emerged of the secret senses animals have.

Since then, and this is the moral of the story for me, I have always paid attention to signs that are not easily identified. A muscle that starts twinkling on my right arm, a toothache that comes and goes. and I have read of the back pain a certain very successful trader has to warn him of something that cannot be seen or measured. 

Ali Meshkati comments:

Like many aspects of the financial markets, there is a razor thin line that separates the realm of speculation from the realm of gambling. It is most interesting that these two realms can become fatally intertwined as a result of poor judgment and/or strategy in speculation leading to a gamblers mentality of recouping gains as quickly as possible. It is all the more interesting that the average “speculator” will, in the heat of battle, fail to recognize when he has exited the universe of speculation and entered into the alien world of gambling. It is only after one has exited the battlefield - perhaps due to a fatal wound - that the participant realizes that the terrain in which he or she began the battle was not nearly the same as where it ended.

As a former hedge fund manager, who experienced quick success, followed by quick failure, it is true that, for a majority of mortals in the world of speculation, the greatest of failures will come after the greatest of success. The reasons are obvious, the core of which lies at the basic element of our nature, which is to survive. Success leads to a dulling down, so to speak, of our instinct to survive. With that dulling down comes a series of events that can occur in any order, but typically consist of the following:

1. Puffing of the chest, which, in modern times, comes in the form of acquiring large homes, fancy cars, expensive furniture and collector items that have little purpose or use, besides showing off to whoever is willing to look and listen.
2. Relaxed discipline, primarily in the form of enjoying yourself, to the detriment of the very vehicle (your mind and body) that got you to the point where you can enjoy or abuse the things that you are enjoying or abusing in the first place. Excessive eating, drinking, and sex, which serve to disrupt the harmony that enabled your success.
3. Lack of focus, which typically leads to an unrecognized crossing of one of the many thin lines that exist in the financial markets. Subsequently, this leads the speculator into an unknown realm, which, he or she will not recognize until steep losses ensue or perhaps even complete failure, if the survival instinct has been dulled down enough.

I know of very few speculators who have not succumb to basic human nature, which often works to the detriment of speculators, as the markets are heavily counter-intuitive and prey upon basic human emotions and nature. The only goal of the speculator then should be to always be paranoid, as the battle with yourself is never-ending.

Janice Dorn adds: 

A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, "How do I know you won't sting me?" The scorpion says, "Because if I do, I will die too."

The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp "Why"? The scorpion replied softly and calmly: "I can't help it, it's who I am, it's my nature., it's me being me."…from Aesop's Fables

No matter who you are, how intelligent or how much education you have, if you keep doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results, you are suffering from the most insidious form of insanity. This is self-delusion of the highest degree. Many years ago, when I first started to trade, I was so optimistic that I could make money consistently. I was smart, more educated than almost anyone I knew, a successful brain scientist and physician, and always had been able to study hard and master anything I put my mind to. I could do it and nothing was going to stop me. I would work longer and more intensely than anyone else, and show wonderful profits month after month.

Little did I know what I was facing, and that I was about to come head on with the most challenging task of my lifetime. Simple, maybe, but not easy. Not easy at all. After a few months, I found myself dancing as fast as I could, yet running on a treadmill going nowhere and suffering from vertigo, headache and a severe case of tick-itis. I studied and read everything I could lay my hands on, subscribed to service after service looking for the Holy Grail and struggled to make consistently successful trades. Why couldn't I do it? What was wrong?

Is this so difficult? What about all the people who have returns of greater than 80% a years? They couldn't be exaggerating, could they? After all, it's in print and on a heavily subscribed website, so it must be true. Mustn't it? So I studied more, subscribed to more services, learned new indicators, bought books, joined some chat rooms and saturated myself with information. This produced more vertigo, headache and sleep deprivation. I was on total information overload. I started sleeping sitting up so that I would not sleep too deeply and could awaken more easily at 4:30 AM (having gone to sleep at around 1:30 AM) in order to study and watch the markets before they opened at 6:30 AM.

I was in total immersion, so why couldn't I make consistently successful trades? I became paranoid, thinking it was a kind of conspiracy since every time I took a position it went against me. I knew the stop and was stopped out in my minds, but we didn't take the stops because I had faith that the position would come back. It was some kind of a misunderstanding or misinterpretation by the market that was responsible for the price spiraling downward.

Buy more. That's it. Average down and keep averaging down and eventually, I will get it right. Eventually, the price will come back up and I will be justified. Why isn't the price coming back? I know it has to. After all, I studied it, charted it, listened to the gurus, read everything on every bulletin board, and it absolutely has to come back. Oh, that news that just came out… Ugh! Must be false or overstated because there is no reason that the stock should be selling off like that.

I know it is coming back, so I will buy more. Wow! Look at the size of the position now. Hmmmm. I better kick it up a notch and start participating in every message board and study every report and watch every tick every day for signs that life is returning and I can get back from underwater. Most of you know how this feels. I do. I have been there, lived it, and suffered losses from it. Life was miserable this way. I became depressed and irritable. I walled myself off from the rest of the world just trying to figure out what to do. I had dug a really deep hole and the only way out was to sell and take the losses, or waited and be in agony day after day, watching my account and my self-esteem (what was left of it) erode like sifting sands.

I tried too hard, studied too much, and pushed myself to the point of both physical and mental exhaustion. Why? Why did I not honor the stop, continue to hold on and even average down? I had to figuratively kill the frog and kill myself in the process. In order to be reborn, I had to destroy the internal self-defeating programming and start all over again. I had to step back, look at what I had done with a sharp and penetrating glare in the bright light of day. I decided to take the loss, to stop trading for a while, to take a vacation and center myself. My health returned. The dizziness and headache went away. I didn't care so much about watching the flickering ticks (so, at least, I was in remission from a severe case of tick-itis).

It was not the market, the charts, the software, the gurus or anyone/anything else. It was me! I was my worst enemy. Nothing was going to change until I got right with myself.

"The most exquisite paradox is that as soon as you give it all up, you can have it all. As long as you want power, you can't have it. The minute you don't want power, you'll have more than you ever dreamed possible." Ram Dass

Steve Leslie adds:

The depth of this fable is remarkable beyond belief. There is a meal that is worth a lifetime here alone. The speculator would be well served to read this several times and reflect on its enormity since we have all been guilty of doing something that we blame on "our nature" and ultimately suffer the consequences. It can be a convenient excuse.

I can think of so many illustrations of this that a book could be written on this one fable alone:

Phil Mickelson had all but won the 2006 U.S. Open by holding a two stroke lead with three holes remaining. He had played beautifully for 69 holes on Winged Foot in Mamaroneck N.Y. Winged Foot had lived up to its reputation of being a brutal challenge for the greatest players in the game. Mickelson came to the 16th hole and on the par five he bogeyed. He parred the 17th hole and came to the 18th hole needing a par to win the tournament. He had been struggling with his driver all week and Johnny Miller commented that all he needed to do is put his drive in the fairway and the tournament was his. He would become only the 2nd person in the last 50 years to win three major tournaments in a row. Miller suggested that he should take out a three wood and just smooth it into the fairway.

Inexplicably, he takes out his driver and pushes his shot to the left, it caroms off a hospitality tent, and lands in a trampled patch of dirt with an obstructed view to the green. He tries to pull of a Houdini-like shot and hits a tree leaving him with essentially the same shot. This time the ball is struck and flies into a bunker. From there the nightmare continues. He overcooks the sand shot and makes an up-and-in. His double-bogey practically gives the tournament to Geoff Ogilvy who had to chip in for par on the 17th hole himself to preserve a totally bizarre finish.

"I still am in shock that I did that," Mickelson said after his final round 5-over-par 75. "I just can't believe that I did that. I am such an idiot. I just couldn't hit a fairway all day. I tried to go to my bread-and-butter shot, a baby carve slice on 18 and just get into the fairway and I missed it left. It was still OK, wasn't too bad. I just can't believe I couldn't par the last hole. It really stings. I came out here and worked hard all four days, haven't made a bogey all week [on No. 18] and then double-bogeyed the last hole. Even a bogey would have gotten me into a playoff. I just can't believe I did that.

"So, it hurts because I had it in my grasp and just let it go, as opposed to somebody making a long putt or what have you."

Let us learn from this and remember that as Caesar remarked "The fault dear Brutus is not in the stars but in ourselves." 

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