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Volatility as the Measure of Risk; Not Wise

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Greetings Mr. Covel,

During one of your recent podcasts, you and Wesley Gray were discussing how the academic community considers the volatility of an asset’s price to be its risk while you and Gray consider the permanent loss of the capital invested in an asset to be its risk. Many years ago, I read an interview of Harry Markowitz where he stated that he used volatility to measure the risk of an asset because “it made the math easy.” I was completely shocked. The father of Modern Portfolio Theory chose his measure of risk based on its mathematical convenience.

I searched for the interview again because I wanted to send a link of it to you so that you could read it for yourself. Unfortunately, I could not find the interview but I still remember the feeling of complete shock that I felt when I read that Markowitz chose volatility as the measure of risk because “it made the math easy.”

What is your understanding of how volatility became the primary measure of risk in finance?

Regards,
[Name]

I don’t believe Markowitz believed that as you state, but rather was designing for theory. As you might recall he was surprised that modern finance was built off his work. He wrote the PhD paper, and others extrapolated his work into something else. Markowitz, himself, stated that “semi-variance is the more plausible measure of risk.”

But I have also see this:

“I would’ve created CAPM around semi-variance, but no one would have understood the math and I wouldn’t have won Nobel Prize…” –Harry Markowitz

Harry Markowitz
Harry Markowitz

“Given that you’re taking a risk, what kind are you up for?”

Great post by Seth Godin:

Here’s an interesting choice that most people leave unmade:

How comfortable are you engaging in projects where there’s a likelihood that you’ll lose by just a hair?

What makes a project worthwhile and interesting is that it might not work. All the this-is-sure-to-work projects are taken.

Given that you’re taking a risk, what kind are you up for?

Are you seeking out areas where there’s no competition, true longshots where few people see you fail?

Or are you okay with the daring near misses?

That’s the trend following ethos too.

Risk
Risk

Life as a Continuum Running on Loop Back and Forth from Risk to Reward

Life is a series of bets. Decisions on top of decisions. Choosing a trading strategy is one of those decisions to bet on. Consider an excerpt from Trend Commandments:

You want to see life as a continuum running on a loop back and forth from risk to reward. If you want a big reward, take a big risk. If you want an average reward and an average life, take an average risk. Easier said than done, however, if you want the big reward. Our system is notorious for playing Whac-A-Mole with achievers. From an early age, people are conditioned by families, schools, and virtually every other shaping force in society to avoid risk. To take risks is inadvisable; to play it safe is the message. Risk can only be bad. However, winners understand risk is highly productive, and not something to avoid. Taking calculated risks is different from acting rashly. Playing it safe is the true danger. Far more often than you might realize, the real risk in life turns out to be the refusal to take a risk. If life is a game of risk, then to one degree or another, being comfortable with assessing odds is the only option for a fulfilling life. Consider trading from a “startup” business perspective. Every business is ultimately involved in assessing risk. Putting capital to work to make it grow is the goal. In that sense, all business is the same. The right decisions lead to success, and wrong ones lead to insolvency.

Blunt, but true.

Now, feedback from a listener that made the right bet:

Trend following has indeed changed my life. After a 20-year career on Wall Street I am now a successful, profitable, independent trader. Have I made money with trend following? Yes, indeed. Living a nice life in Chicago with three kids going to private school, enjoying the finer things. My strategy is not difficult to execute at all. Very basic and straight forward. I keep it as simple as possible. I will absolutely continue to execute this strategy. Mind you–always looking at new information and ideas.

Thanks!

Ep. 388: Logic Over Faith with Michael Covel on Trend Following Radio

Logic Over Faith with Michael Covel on Trend Following Radio
Logic Over Faith with Michael Covel on Trend Following Radio

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On today’s episode of Trend Following Radio Michael Covel opens the conversation by taking a look at the concept of faith, and how it has no place in the trading world. In trading, logic and reason trump faith. If you can’t “grow” up and use reason to gather information and form strategy, Michael notes, then you have no place at the “adult” table.

Next, Michael outlines core decision-making precepts. Sometimes making the right move means going against your instincts, and it’s at these times that you need to force yourself to make a decision – even if it means quitting. People tend to equate quitting with failure when the truth, as Michael points out, is that sometimes quitting is what keeps you in the game. This line of thinking is again linked to logic rather than faith – the erroneous faith that if you necessarily stick it out (i.e. a losing trade in the markets) success will follow.

Other topics covered in this episode touch on how financial advisors primarily exist to push mutual funds and buy and hold orthodoxy, why investing without a plan dooms you before you begin, and why embracing the challenge of how the world and investing really works makes you a smarter investor.

In this episode of Trend Following Radio:

  • Logic over faith
  • Financial advisors: there to give mutual fund advice
  • Adapting your strategy
  • How quitting can keep you in the game
  • Forcing yourself to make decisions
  • Risk and reward

“What I say is, at what price? If low interest rates were just that simple of a panacea, we would never have recessions. We would never have these crises, we would never have these panics.” – Carl Icahn

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Ep. 387: Gabriel Weinberg Interview with Michael Covel on Trend Following Radio

Gabriel Weinberg
Gabriel Weinberg

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Today on Trend Following Radio Michael Covel talks with author and startup entrepreneur Gabriel Weinberg about the concept of traction. Gabriel points out that in the business world traction is about far more than simply getting a grip and hanging in there – it’s about then moving forward, ultimately toward a defined goal (customers).

Just like a trend following trader that uses quantitative methods to invest scientifically, Gabriel relies on numbers and hard data to inform him about which marketing channels are working and which should be focused on, and which are less effective and should be dropped. The result is a streamlined marketing approach that’s allowed Gabriel, a self-published author, to sell upwards of 35,000 copies of his book.

Michael and Gabriel also talk about how psychology factors into startup entrepreneurship. For anyone investing their time and energy into a project, both passion and resiliency are paramount. If you aren’t passionate about the work you’re doing, and if you don’t genuinely enjoy the challenge of bringing a product to market, then you’re doomed before you ever start. Best, as Michael suggests, to run back to the office cubicle.

In this episode of Trend Following Radio:

  • Reaching your goal, then setting another
  • Resilience: vital to the entrepreneur
  • Committing to your idea
  • Psychology: the main barrier to success
  • Understanding that it’s okay to fail
  • Enjoy the challenge – or go do something else

“And so if you think of your initial product as a leaky bucket – you know, you pour in customers at the top and customers leak out of the bucket because your product’s not good yet…You need a steady stream of cold customers with fresh eyes to tell you where those leaks are, and if you don’t have that when you launch you’re still gonna have leaks more of the time than not.” – Gabriel Weinberg

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Ep. 386: Expanding Your Thinking with Michael Covel on Trend Following Radio

Expanding Your Thinking with Michael Covel on Trend Following Radio
Expanding Your Thinking with Michael Covel on Trend Following Radio

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Today on Trend Following Radio Michael Covel takes time out to highlight the fact that trend following isn’t only about trading. From gamblers to pharmaceutical executives to those in the film and music industries, trend following is a strategy rooted in human nature itself.

As an example, Michael examines the success of film producer Jason Blum. In direct opposition to the Hollywood mantra of Spend! Spend! Spend!, Blum has chosen another path. Blum, recognizing that big budgets don’t necessarily mean big profits, developed a filmmaking system based on low budget projects. Blum fully understands that close to half of his films will flop. But he also understands that a handful of box office successes will more than cover those losses. This is the essence of trend following.

Michael goes on to quote from a 2005 article by best-selling author Michael Crichton. Crichton, talking about the then-burgeoning field of futurism, explains that these so-called futurists don’t actually know any more about the future than the average man on the street. These “experts” are guilty of the same flawed thinking that spews forth from the minds of traders who think they know what the market will do tomorrow.

In this episode of Trend Following Radio:

  • Why embracing uncertainty pays big
  • Trend following: it’s human nature
  • Losses: acceptable when you strategize to cover them
  • The sunk cost fallacy
  • Opening your mind to alternative ways of thinking
  • The mistake of blindly accepting the word of “authorities”

“I remind you there is a new kind of special occupation. I refuse to call it a discipline or a field of study. It’s called futurism. The notion here is that there is a way to study trends and know what the future holds. That would indeed be valuable if it were possible. But it isn’t possible. Futurists don’t know any more about the future than you or I. Read their magazines from a couple years ago and you’ll see an endless parade of error.” – Michael Crichton

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Ep. 385: Paul Slovic Interview with Michael Covel on Trend Following Radio

Paul Slovic Interview with Michael Covel on Trend Following Radio
Paul Slovic

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This time on Trend Following Radio, Michael Covel talks with Paul Slovic. Paul is president of Decision Research and a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, and today he talks with Michael about the science behind risk perception.

To demonstrate how people tend to conflate actual risk with their perceptions of risk, Michael and Paul discuss a topic that’s always been a hot button issue in the public consciousness, nuclear power. In the early days of this industry, people were rightfully concerned with the possible mismanagement of such a potentially dangerous technology – concerns seemingly crystallized by the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979. Similar concerns continue to be raised today, particularly in light of the Fukushima disaster of 2011. But as Paul explains, neither of these tragedies can completely outweigh the obvious benefits of nuclear power. It’s a case of risk perception to overcome the actual risk posed.

The conversation also focuses on the role of the media in influencing people’s decision-making processes. Why is it, you might ask, that the media spends so much more time pushing negative stories than positive ones? The answer, according to Paul, goes back to biology. It’s a survival mechanism in human beings that we’re affected far more by negative stimuli than positive stimuli. This makes sense when you consider the external dangers we’ve faced in our evolution. So today, we tend to harp on the bad things that happen while ignoring the good.

In this episode of Trend Following Radio:

  • The psychometric paradigm of risk perception
  • Balancing risk vs. reward
  • The concept of affect heuristics
  • How the media sways the public’s risk assessment
  • Fast vs. slow thinking
  • Risk in the context of decision making

“Bad is stronger than good. If something goes wrong in a system it decreases our trust in the management of that system more than when something goes right. Something goes right, it doesn’t really boost our trust and confidence. It’s the negative that outweighs the positive, and the negative is being conveyed to us much more frequently and forcefully through the media than the positive is.” – Paul Slovic

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