Is Investing Just Pattern Recognition?

In my opinion, summertime is the best time of year.  The weather is nice and I get to spend my time taking the kids to swimming lessons,  bbqing outside, and just enjoying life not bundled up under 3 layers of clothing.

I ‘ve definitely been enjoying this summer and haven’t been spending nearly as much time in front of the computer like I usually do.  So this means less time research investing ideas and reading investing books.

But this doesn’t mean I don’t have investing on the brain.  I do… and sometimes the strangest of investing notions hit me.

The most recent of which happened when I was hanging-out during my kid’s swimming lessons…


Pavlovian Association And The Human Brain

My kids have been going to swimming lessons this summer and they are learning the basics of swimming — floating, kicking, crawl strokes, jumping into the pool, etc.  The basic foundational stuff that everyone has to learn when learning how to swim.

But kids aren’t born knowing how to do these things, they have to build up that muscle memory.  Most of the time the instructors will describe to the kids what they want them to do, but the kids actually pick it up faster when the instructor physically grabs their arms or legs and takes them through the motions.  Building that muscle memory up.

new swimmer
Swimming is just repetition of a few patterns over and over again.  Given enough time and practice, people can get good at it.

After a few times, the kids can repeat the pattern and see success as their swimming skills improve.  Learning many skills works like this.  We recreate a pattern of behavior that leads to success.

Repetition, repetition, and then eventually improvement.  Repeat this many more times and even more improvements occur.

Pavlov trained his dogs using this kind of conditioning, and most vertebrates (including humans) learn the exact same way.

It struck me that most investors learn to invest like this — They find some pattern or methodology, apply it, and then either find success or failure from doing so.  Then, they rinse and repeat.

Over time individuals build up a conditioned series of behaviors about what works or what doesn’t in investing.

The problem is, these patterns the investors learned could be completely wrong, due to luck (or perhaps misfortune).

Let’s look at a couple of the more common “pattern recognition” investing styles to illustrate this point a little further.


Technical Analysis

Technical Analysis is the study of stock price and volume metrics to determine future price movements.  With fancy names like Japanese Candlestick analysis and Eliot Wave Theory it sounds like a really cool method of investing.

By matching shapes and patterns in the movement of stock prices, Technical analysts believe that price history will repeat itself and they can trade their way to wealth by finding geometric patterns in the stock price that predict the future.

But does it work?

Well it might… sometimes.  The research on technical analysis is pretty limited, but some researchers have found that there could be some small amounts of predictability by looking at certain patterns in price/volume data.

But that research is hardly conclusive.

It doesn’t work all the time, and later researchers have upheld the idea that stock market prices are really just random walks.  Individuals who practice technical analysis might say things like “it worked for me”, and it might have … some of the time.  This is called a clustering illusion.

But how about long term?  Does technical analysis work with larger and longer data sets?

Not really… and certainly not conclusively.  There are no billionaires that invested to that level of wealth using technical analysis.  Human judgement is far too big of a factor for technical analysis to work consistently for long periods of time.  Eventually they lose and lose big.

Why does this eventual ‘failure’ happen?

Humans can create patterns in data where none actually exist.  They can see the number “13” everywhere they look, or find geometric shapes in stock price data.

That doesn’t mean these imagined “patterns” have any real meaning.


Fundamental Analysis

The other big method of stock analysis is called Fundamental Analysis.  Practicers of this methodology look for patterns in historical business metrics to predict future stock movements — usually this means buying stocks at a low prices and then selling again at a higher prices when certain fundamental metrics apply.

Here’s some of the more popular patterns fundamental analysts look for:

  • Low PE ratios.
  • High growth rates.
  • Low Price to Book values.
  • High returns on equity.
  • High returns on incremental invested capital.
  • Low Price To Free Cash Flow levels.
  • Big dividend yields.
  • Large % share buybacks.
  • and so on.

There has been some significant academic research that’s found some fundamental analysis methods might actually work.

For example — at certain points in history buying small cap stocks would have outperformed large caps.

The problem is, once a scientific paper gets released which details a specific pattern that outperforms with historical data, the advantage quickly disappears as hedge funds and stock traders pick up the new methodology.

Essentially destroying any advantage that ‘fundamental’ pattern may have had.

I don’t think it would be wrong to say that no pattern works all the time, either in fundamental analysis or technical analysis.

But pattern recognition and pattern training is how we humans learn…  does the fact that none of these methods work all the time mean we should just give up and invest in some low cost index funds?

Perhaps… and to some extent I’ve followed this line of thinking myself.  We hold a significant percentage of our net worth in low cost index funds.

But I haven’t given up on investing entirely.  I still make individual stock investments when all the stars align just right.


The Man with a Hammer Syndrome

The problem arises when most investors learn a new tool ,they attempt to apply it everywhere.  This is the man with a hammer syndrome — To a man with a hammer the entire world looks like a nail.

But any good carpenter can tell you that you need A LOT of different tools to build a house properly.  A simple hammer just isn’t going to cut it.

To quote one of my favorite investor’s, Charlie Munger:

“You must know the big ideas in the big disciplines, and use them routinely — all of them, not just a few. Most people are trained in one model — economics, for example — and try to solve all problems in one way.  This is a dumb way of handling problems.”

To be a really good investor, according to Munger (who’s arguably one of the best investors in the world) you need to have a lot of different “tools”.  No one simple pattern can provide the answer:

“When you’re trying to determine intrinsic value and margin of safety, there’s no one easy method that can simply be mechanically applied by a computer that will make someone who pushes the buttons rich. You have to apply a lot of models. I don’t think you can become a great investor rapidly, no more than you can become a bone-tumor pathologist quickly.”

To be perfectly fair, there actually was a series of trading algorithms run by a hedge fund that almost worked.  Back in the 1990’s Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM) used some fancy qualitative models to exploit price inefficiencies across various asset classes.

Some very smart Nobel prize winning economists were involved in this hedge fund, and for a time there methods did work (with annualize returns in the 20-40% range).  However, the price inefficiencies LTCM was exploiting were very small and required significant leverage to exploit — at times LTCM had a debt to equity ratio over 25-to-1.

As you might expect, LTCM eventually collapsed when the models stopped working during the Asian financial crisis — and nearly brought the entire US economy with it.  Most initial investors in the LTCM fund were completely wiped out.

The value of $1000 invested in LTCM. Initial performance was quite good.

It’s stories like these I find extremely instructive — some of the world’s smartest people find patterns and attempt to exploit small advantages… and it eventually fails.  There’s a great book written about the rise and fall of LTCM that needs mentioning here —  it’s called When Genius Failed.  I highly recommend it if your even slightly interested in investing.

This says to me that pattern recognition isn’t really the answer on how to become a great investor.  Patterns can’t be fully trusted … Yet the investing world is completely obsessed with pattern recognition (probably because that’s fundamentally how our brains work).

I believe patterns are only a part of the investing riddle.


Finding Lollapalooza Effects

While I don’t claim to be a great investor, I do like to study them.  Charlie Munger is by far my favorite, partly because he’s just so “out there” and different from everybody else.

He’s not the richest, not the smartest, and not even the most popular, but he does have some very unique ideas about investing I’ve never heard anywhere else.

One of which, is called the Lollapalooza Effect.

The Lollapalooza Effect is when multiple “models”, biases, incentives, patterns, and psychological tendencies all act together in the same direction —  Much like learning to swim.  Your arms and legs all have to pull together to make significant forward motion in the water.

Munger believes that outstanding investment results can be achieved when Lollapalooza effects occur.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, predicting the future is extremely hard to do.  Most people fail at it miserably.  But investing itself is really the study of predicting the future… at least in small places where you can do some accurate predicting.

When Lollapalooza effects occur, suddenly the job of predicting that future becomes a much easier task for the investor.

The trick is in identifying those Lollapalooza effects.  They aren’t just simple patterns to be recognized.  They can come from a wide variety of discipline — biology, psychology, economics, and of course competitive pressures.

I can’t say that I’m good at finding lollapalooza investments yet, but at least I’m learning.

Maybe one day I’ll be able to swim in the deep end.


Image Credit [Flickr]

23 thoughts on “Is Investing Just Pattern Recognition?

  • August 8, 2018 at 7:08 AM

    I’ve come to accept that I’m not very good at investing. That’s why most of our investments are in index funds. We have some dividend stocks, but probably will transition to dividend growth fund at some point. I enjoy your investing articles, though. I probably need to devote a lot more time to it so I can improve.
    I’ve never heard of the Lollapalooza Effect.

  • August 8, 2018 at 7:59 AM

    If there’s anyone equipped to swim into the deep end, I think it’s you, Mr. Tako! I, on the other hand, have resolved myself to focusing on real estate investing to find my 10X returns.

    It is definitely fascinating to hear your thought process and ideas around pattern recognition, but at the end of the day, there are so many darn variables. How do you know which actually create the biggest effect, or is a combination of more than one? Fundamental metrics seem the most sound to me.

    • August 9, 2018 at 1:15 PM

      Yep exactly! We’re taught to think it’s pattern recognition, but it’s far more complicated. Social behavior, incentives, culture, and many many other things can play an important piece of the puzzle. In many cases those variables aren’t even measured.

      This is why finding the Lollapalooza effect is important. We probably *can’t* know which variables are the most important.

  • August 8, 2018 at 9:51 AM

    I leave the complicated graphs, technical- as well as fundamental analysis to those who are smart enough to figure that out.

    I come from a family where literally no one ever invested. I’m the first to test the waters for generations. So my focus is to raise my daughters with another mindset, another money paradigm, than I grew up with.

    From very early on, when my girls were in the kindergarten, I’ve been asking them the same question: “How many ways are there to earn money?” They proudly answer “Two! People at work and Money at work!” Then I ask: “Which way do you like the most?” to which they answer “Money at work!”.

    Now they’re 6 and 8 years old and they can still answer the question at any time. I really hope early teaching will help them carry this mindset into their future.

    I’m hoping that if they see themselves as investors from an early age they will figure out a profitable way eventually. Like Joe said, Index Investing doesn’t take much thinking 🙂

    I guess you’re right though. Most things in this world is controlled by patterns.

    • August 9, 2018 at 1:12 PM

      Well, that’s kind of the opposite of my point. I’m saying we *think* patterns are how it works, but the reality is far more complicated… organic is one way to put it.

      Could you ever create an algorithm to describe the behavior of a living animal? You could try, and probably get pretty close… but in some respects you wouldn’t get things right.

      The investing world works a lot more like the biological world. Probably because biological beings are behind it.

      • August 9, 2018 at 1:48 PM

        Oh I see. I thought you meant it was a matter of combining all kinds of patterns with the Lollapalooza Effect. Kinda like intuition works when you master a topic on world class level? One pattern can never stand alone but understanding the basic patterns acts like guidance in certain scenarios and gives you a good feeling about the outcome.

        The behavior of a living animal would be far easier to predict if you have combined knowledge of the historic patterns. No pattern will be right 100% of the time but it should be possible to make an algorithm that will be right in most scenarios.

        Either way, it’s a very interesting topic.

        • August 9, 2018 at 2:09 PM

          Actually, I think you’ve got a pretty good handle on it. No one pattern can stand alone! Some very important indicators might be entirely unique to one single investment. Trying to find a ‘perfect pattern’ for all investments is fraught with difficulty.

          But combining multiple ideas from various fields of study can be incredibly useful!

  • August 8, 2018 at 9:56 AM

    I am a huge fan of Chalie Munger. Learned a ton from him. He is just an outstanding thinker and has become wiser with age with no time for sugarcoating what he says. One may call him surly old man.

    Investing is like learning, our previous knowledge compounds and we ought to become better over time. However we still get surprised and shaken up and that is what keeps it interesting and fun.

    The next market meltdown will be one to test our nerve, that’s for sure.


    • August 9, 2018 at 1:09 PM

      Munger is an amazing person and one I deeply respect. Not just because he’s a great investor, but because he speaks his mind. He’s not afraid to call someone stupid or insane on national television. That’s partly why I’m a big lover of Mungerisms and investment philosophy.

      He’s also suffered some incredible tragedies in his life and still bounced back. Just an incredible person overall that has absolutely no reason not to tell people the whole truth about investing.

  • August 8, 2018 at 1:33 PM

    My maxim: Do everything; believe absolutely in nothing. I think TA definitely has value, although it, like all other strategies, has limitations.

    • August 9, 2018 at 1:04 PM

      I’m not into TA. Its disconnectedness from the actual business makes it a tool I don’t use.

      That said, to each his/her own.

  • August 8, 2018 at 2:04 PM

    Bummer. I can’t swim. Many have tried to teach me without success. I try to listen to warren buffet and that’s what I do with my money – index funds.

    I do trade individual stocks and did quite well last year – maybe it was the beginner’s luck because this year hasn’t been good. Oh well…you win some, you lose some.

    • August 9, 2018 at 1:02 PM

      Yes, the stock market does seem pretty random at times. For me, I don’t like “random” returns. The market can have its fluctuation from year to year, but I want my compound interest *every* year.

      One of the reasons why I like dividends.

  • August 8, 2018 at 2:19 PM

    There is also another phenomena to consider which makes these rockstar investors like Munger and Buffet seem like genius. At one point they get so big in name/reputation that whatever they invest in will turn to gold. If someone hears that Buffet just bought some portion of a company guess what, every investor wants in and that will cause price to increase (making Buffet look like even more of a genius). Not saying that he isn’t a genius because he clearly is, but now it is supplemented quite a bit by reputation as well.

    For those who are not named Buffet/Munger, we just have all the tools necessary to do technical analysis like these giants. We should therefore be happy with just market returns which index investing provides.

    • August 9, 2018 at 12:58 PM

      Ah yes, the Buffet Effect. It’s a well documented phenomenon. He creates a catalyst just by putting his name on something. In fact, I’ve taken advantage of that from time to time. My first 10 bagger probably benefited from it – PTR.

  • August 8, 2018 at 6:47 PM

    I’ve never heard of the Lollapalooza Effect. Interesting analogy, comparing it to swimming. Learning to swim in the deep end is scary at first, but rewarding in the end. Hopefully it pays off in the end for you!

    • August 9, 2018 at 12:56 PM

      Can’t complain. Our net worth keeps marching forward.

  • August 9, 2018 at 2:16 AM

    Good stuff as always. Maybe that LTCM algorithm would have kept doing well with constant updates and change. Patterns change, but they can still be loosely called patterns.

    Either way, it is an interesting thought exercise. I’m not good at investing in individual stocks though, so I’ll get popcorn and watch from the side 🙂

    • August 9, 2018 at 12:55 PM

      Well, they were geniuses and they couldn’t keep it going. The patterns work until they don’t I guess.

  • August 10, 2018 at 3:25 AM

    “So I went through life constantly practicing this model of the multidisciplinary approach. Well, I can’t tell you what that’s done for me. It’s made life more fun, it’s made me more constructive, it’s made me more helpful to others, it’s made me enormously rich, you name it, that attitude really helps. “

    This Munger quote got me fired up ( somewhere around 1998 ) to read all i could about Munger and his multiple model approach. The fun hasn’t stopped, and my hobby to attempt not be “ a one legged man in an ass kicking contest” by studying the big ideas in the big disciplines will only stop when I die.

    His investment approach can be summarised by the combination of extreme patience and extreme aggression.

    Thanks for your articles Mr Tako and thanks for mentioning one of my biggest heroes!

  • September 6, 2018 at 4:42 AM

    I primarily stick with index funds and actively managed mutual funds/ETFs. When it comes to buying individual stocks, I go off the recommendations from an investment newsletter and Kiplinger’s. I still research each stock pick and pass on ones I think are too risky or don’t align with my values. It’s my attempt at performing due diligence.

    Although it’s been a good decade to be an investor, I still lean toward fundamental analysis as a sound business are more likely to weather economic downturns. This year, I have started learning more about technical analysis but I don’t have the time/desire to become a technical trader. I think it can be a good way to find and understand trends, but I think more importantly is knowing where we stand in the current market and credit cycles. I’m more cautious moving forward and have started taking gains off the table and waiting to buy some new investments at a discount.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge
Mr. Tako Escapes