Neurons and Alpha Bits | FirstRain

Neurons and Alpha Bits

Guest post from Keith McCullough CEO/Chief Investment Officer at ResearchEdge

I posted on Keith’s interesting new transparency model a few days ago – here’s his thinking on the interaction of your brain and alpha in this bear market.

Mathematically speaking, “edge” is often alluded to in the investment community as “alpha”. We like alpha. Our team eats it for breakfast and washes it down with criticism and compliments alike. We know that as long as its taste remains in our bellies, we have something that will drive us toward getting up tomorrow morning.

This morning, and on those of the past few weeks, I have been waking up to increasing confirmation that we have had the “macro call” right. It’s been nine months since I left Wall Street, and while I sincerely hope that you don’t interpret my recent work as “I told you so”, I realize full well that hope is not an investment model. I have zero control over the dopamine and serotonin levels in your brain, particularly when it comes to colliding with the emotions associated with your making, saving, or losing money.

When it comes to money, the emotional impact on your brain is well researched. Richard Peterson wrote a fantastic book last year titled “Inside The Investor’s Brain – The Power Of Mind Over Money”, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is serious about trading this bear market actively. One of my favorite chapters is called “Overconfidence & Hubris”, and there you’ll find a discussion on the neurochemical balance of your investment thought processes. If you’ve already studied this, at a very basic level you know that there is a decrease in your brain’s dopamine levels at the exact time you thought you were going to be right, and weren’t. Yes, this is why some people do “dope”, it takes those worries away in the immediate term.

There is, of course, a legal solution to upping your dopamine levels – be right! As Peterson points out, “when a reward is found dopamine neurons reinforce the reward producing behavior… this is a process of learning via the dopamine pathway.” However he goes on to explain that the music of you’re being right can effectively stop, and “if a behavior is no longer rewarding, then norepinephrine levels increase in the brain. Norepinephrine stimulates scanning for new opportunities.”

These psychological facts should make perfect sense. If they don’t, you may be blessed with some Mr. Spock like “Vulcan” attributes that Peterson has some fun with. Most of us are human however, and should be very much aware that we are all going to be right and wrong over the span of an investment career. All the while, the art in making (or saving) money when others can’t lies in respecting that there are sciences at work within this complex global market ecosystem.

This morning for breakfast, as we scour the world and our respective models for those elusive “Alpha” bits, I wish you the best of luck. Our cumulative knowledge is more powerful than our individual emotions. Given that the 1st Nobel Prize in Economics was not awarded until 1969, there is plenty of creative destruction to look forward to. The evolution of investing is a process, not a point.