Heard the one about the monkey and the typewriter?
“If one puts an infinite number of monkeys in front of (strongly built) typewriters and lets them clap away, there is a certainty that one of them [will] come out with an exact version of the ‘Iliad,’” writes Nassim Nicholas Taleb in a recent book, Fooled by Randomness.
The monkey typist story is an old one, and the key word is “infinite.” But Taleb takes this hoary tale a step further. “Now that we have found that hero among monkeys, would any reader invest his life’s savings on a bet that the monkey would write the ‘Odyssey’ next?”
Taleb’s point is that the past frequently tells us nothing at all about the future, even though many of us believe it does and make investments accordingly. “Think about the monkey showing up at your door with his impressive past performance. Hey, he wrote the ‘Iliad.’”
The lesson here for investors is powerful and frightening. How much can you rely on the track records of investment advisers, mutual fund managers, newspaper columnists, or even the market as a whole in making decisions about your investment portfolio? Not nearly as much as you probably think.