Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Loser's Game

There are two types of games: "Winner’s Games" and "Loser’s Games." Now this doesn’t mean that losers play only certain games, while winners play other games. It has nothing to do with personality characteristics. By "Loser’s Game," I don’t mean that investors are losers. It is just a way to classify games to help us understand them better.

The outcome of any competitive game depends upon the actions of both the winner and the loser of the game. This does not always imply the winner’s actions will dominate the outcome. Many games are not won, but rather, are lost. It is important to understand the distinction.

Winner’s Games are those games whose outcome is largely determined by the actions of the winner. Loser’s Games are those games whose outcome is largely determined by the actions of the loser.

Amateur tennis is a loser’s game. Non-highly-trained players do not possess the skills to deliver excellent serves and returns with consistency. An attempt to try harder to deliver superior shots, compared to the opponent, will not meet with success, but double faults and shots that go out of bounds. Trying harder to make great shots will mean that you are giving the opponent points. The player is not only competing against the other player, but also against the inherent difficulties of the game. The more competitive the amateur tries to be, the more the inherent difficulties of the game will beat him down.

The amateur who has not mastered the fundamentals of the game is far better off just trying to deliver a shot within the tennis court bounds than trying to outplay the opponent. Keep the ball in play and give the opponent the opportunity to mess up the shot. And, the harder the opponent tries, the more likely he will mess up!

If you were playing a professional tennis player, the situation would change drastically. Professional tennis is a winner’s game. Professional tennis players have mastered the fundamentals of the game. You must not only master the fundamentals of the game to win, but you must also deliver superior shots. You must outplay your opponent to win. Returning the ball within court bounds is not enough. The opponent probably won’t mess up and might well force a shot you can’t return.


Investing is a loser’s game. It is a loser’s game, not only at the amateur level, but also at the professional level. Over time, trying harder to achieve superior returns will usually lead to inferior returns. Trying to time the stock market, day trading, buying options, and most active investment advice approaches investing as though it were a winner’s game—believing you can actually conquer and beat the market.

If, for example, you had felt that the stock market was overvalued and due for a correction, and you had remained out of the stock market for the year 1995, you would have missed one of the market’s best years ever. But, maybe, you also missed the big market drop of 1987. What could you conclude from this? Probably, as with my streak of tennis losses, you would tend to remember the victories (or, near victory shots that led to losing the game!) and forget the defeats.

You reason that if only all your tennis shots or investment decisions had been as great as the best ones you remember, you would have won decisively! But, seeking that one great shot is what cost you the match.

You would tend to explain your victory as confirming proof of market timing and your skill to do it, while the defeat would be interpreted as only indicating a need to improve your methods slightly! You are interpreting investing, and more specifically, market timing, as though it were a winner’s game. It is not! It has never been shown that anyone, I repeat anyone, can master stock market timing.

Looking for stocks you feel might go up ten or twenty times from their present price in a few short years is also a form of trying to invest in the stock market as though it were a winner’s game. Or, given the late 1990’s you might be seeking growth stocks that go up 100 times or more in a few short years!

After all, you recall Dell, Cisco, Yahoo, and other companies which shot up by amazing amounts. To buy such speculative stocks implies you feel confident in finding opportunities that are grossly misevaluated by the market. Usually, you will not invest in the next Dell or Cisco, but, rather, the next He-Ro apparel company of the day. That is to say, a lousy investment. This can lead to huge losses.

Individual investors usually have not mastered business evaluation and fundamental analysis sufficiently to actively select the very best aggressively-chosen stocks from among the larger market. But don't feel bad. The professionals who are paid millions of dollars haven't done much better.

Understanding that investing is a loser’s game at heart should keep you from trying to force too many shots. Rather than looking for one big winner, aim for consistency in your results. The bulk of an intelligent investor’s portfolio should be invested in high-quality, larger companies purchased at reasonable prices. Such a portfolio will likely beat, not only a market timer’s portfolio, but also a speculative portfolio of "carefully" selected, aggressive stocks on a risk-adjusted basis.

[This seemed familiar.  Looking in my copy of The Investor's Anthology, this article looks like a rip-off (or adaptation) of The Loser's Game by Charles Ellis.  Ellis also apparently wrote a book around the article called Winning the Loser's Game, now in it's sixth edition.]

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