Thursday, November 16, 2023
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The Illusion of Security in Investing

The Sketchbook of Wisdom: A Hand-Crafted Manual on the Pursuit of Wealth and Good Life

Buy your copy of the book Morgan Housel calls “a masterpiece.” It contains 50 timeless ideas – from Lord Krishna to Charlie Munger, Socrates to Warren Buffett, and Steve Jobs to Naval Ravikant – as they apply to our lives today. Click here to buy now.

In his thought-provoking book “Fooled by Randomness,” Nassim Taleb presents a compelling analogy that sheds light on how we perceive risk and reality. He writes –

First, reality delivers the fatal bullet rather infrequently, like a revolver that would have hundreds, even thousands of chambers instead of six. After a few dozen tries, one forgets about the existence of a bullet, under a numbing false sense of security.

Second, unlike a well-defined precise game like Russian roulette, where the risks are visible to anyone capable of multiplying and dividing by six, one does not observe the barrel of reality. One is capable of unwittingly playing Russian roulette – and calling it by some alternative “low risk” game.

  • Why it matters: What Taleb has done is compare the infrequency of life’s critical risks to a revolver with hundreds, even thousands, of chambers, rather than the mere six of Russian roulette. His analogy encapsulates a significant problem in human psychology, and that is our tendency to underestimate risk due to its infrequent occurrence, which ultimately leads us to a dangerous false sense of security.

After 20 years in the stock market, and through a few cycles where I have sensed such false security myself and have suffered due to it, I can completely vouch for what Taleb has written.

You see, when we engage in activities or make decisions, like in the stock market, where the consequences of our decisions will be seen a few years or decades later, we often overlook the potential risks involved. This oversight is not because these risks are nonexistent, but because they are infrequent.

The rarity of a fatal outcome, like the rare chance of a bullet being fired from a gun with thousands of chambers, leads us to complacency. Like when it comes to investing, you may become overconfident after a few years of favorable market conditions, forgetting the possibility of a steep or prolonged market decline. Or when it comes to health, you might ignore the risks of a sedentary lifestyle or unhealthy diet because the consequences are not immediate.

The Invisible Barrel of Reality

Taleb also delves deeper into the human psyche. Unlike the clear and present danger in a game of Russian roulette, where the risks are obvious and quantifiable, real-life risks are often hidden or misunderstood.

We might be engaging in risky behaviors without even realizing it, thinking we are playing a “low risk” game. This lack of awareness is a critical factor in many of the poor decisions made in various fields, from finance to personal health.

Now, our understanding of probability plays a significant role in how we perceive risk. We are notoriously bad at assessing probabilities, especially when it comes to rare events. We either overestimate the likelihood of extremely rare events like plane crashes, or underestimate more common but less sensational risks, like market crashes or even car accidents. This miscalculation is compounded by the fact that our perception of risk is heavily influenced by personal experiences and emotions, rather than objective analysis.

The Illusion of Control

Another factor contributing to the false sense of security is the illusion of control. We tend to believe we have more control over events than we actually do. This belief leads to an underestimation of risk.

For example, a stock market trader or investor might think his skill is the main reason for his success in the stock market, ignoring the role of luck and external factors. Similarly, someone might believe their good health is solely due to their lifestyle choices, discounting the influence of genetics and environment.

History is replete with examples where a false sense of security led to disastrous outcomes. The financial crises of the past few decades, including the 2008 global financial crisis, serve as stark reminders of what can happen when risks are underestimated.

In these scenarios, what was perceived as a low-risk environment turned out to be a game of Russian roulette with dire consequences.

Applying Taleb’s Insights

To apply Taleb’s insights in our lives and investing, the first step for us is to acknowledge and accept our tendency to underestimate risk.

We should also strive to improve our understanding of probabilities and be aware of our psychological biases. This awareness can help us make better decisions that may lead us to better long term outcomes.

The key takeaway from Taleb’s analogy is the importance of acknowledging and preparing for the improbable. Just because a risk is infrequent does not mean it is nonexistent.

By recognizing the potential dangers in our decisions and actions, no matter how unlikely they seem, we can better prepare for the uncertainties of life.

This preparation does not mean living in fear but rather embracing the unknown with a balanced perspective.

In doing so, we can navigate the complexities of the world of investing or otherwise with a more realistic and prudent approach, enhancing our ability to make informed decisions and, ultimately, leading a more resilient and fulfilling life.

I recently announced admission to the January 2024 batch of my most comprehensive classroom course in Value Investing titled – Value Investing Blueprint.

This residential course is scheduled to be held from 11th to 14th January 2024, at the campus of Pune-based FLAME University. The last date to apply is 10th December, 2023.

Click here to read more and apply if you are interested in joining this course.

Since it’s a classroom course, seats are limited.

The course will take you through the entire process of practicing value investing to identify long term wealth creating stocks. This includes helping you:

  • Create the right value investing mindset and build a behavioural framework to avoid biases and create the right investment thought process.
  • Assess business quality – separating good from gruesome
  • Analyze financial statements to find well-performing businesses
  • Calculate intrinsic valuations using various methods
  • Identify competitive moats and whether they are sustainable
  • Build a portfolio of sound, wealth-creating businesses

Click here to read more and apply if you are interested in joining this course.

I have started work on a series of short videos – titled The Inner Game – to share my thoughts around investing, decision making, learning, and just the practice of trying to live a good life. You can watch them on my YouTube channel, including these recent ones –

You can also find these and all past sessions on Apple PodcastsSpotify, Google Podcasts, and Amazon.

Hope you like these and find some value. Please let me know your feedback and/or suggestions for improvement. Thank you.

That’s about it from me for today.

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Stay safe.

Regards, Vishal

The Sketchbook of Wisdom: A Hand-Crafted Manual on the Pursuit of Wealth and Good Life

Buy your copy of the book Morgan Housel calls “a masterpiece.” It contains 50 timeless ideas – from Lord Krishna to Charlie Munger, Socrates to Warren Buffett, and Steve Jobs to Naval Ravikant – as they apply to our lives today. Click here to buy now.



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