Brexit means No Brexit!

I returned from holiday eagerly anticipating the papers setting out the UK’s position on Brexit.
As far as I can make out, the UK’s primary idea is that the UK firmly leaves the EU…. and also, that it does not!


Customs Union.

The UK will leave the Customs Union in March 2019. Today’s proposals relate what happens after.

The UK government proposes to then enter “a new customs union based upon a shared external tariff and without customs processes and duties between the UK and the EU.”

Hmmm. That sounds remarkably like not leaving?

Well it is not identical to not leaving. The UK also says it would be “time limited” (i.e. a transition), importantly during which they would be able to negotiate new trade deals.

The government also mentions that this is a “innovative and untested approach”, hardly a confident endorsement.

Transition

Leaving aside how reasonable this proposal is, the key conceptual error is misunderstanding what the UK and the EU mean by a transition.

  • For the EU, a transition is a well-constructed bridge between where we are now and an agreed future destination. Therefore, what really matters is to agree the destination.
  • The UK seems to see a transitional deal as a lifeboat. It is the resting place after we leave the EU where we decide where we are heading to.

This leaves the discussions in a precarious position. The EU has no interest in discussing the features of a bridge to nowhere.


Where are we heading?

This is the part I do not understand and I am sure the EU will not understand either. I cannot even write down the UK proposal in a way that makes internal sense, let alone decide whether it would be acceptable or reasonable.

I would instead highlight a dangerous misconception coming from the UK negotiators, often cited in the UK press, that “tariff-free trade” is the same thing as “frictionless trade”.

This perpetuates the myth that the major barriers to trade are tariffs. The major barriers to trade are regulation. The big problem with the US exporting chlorine-bleached chicken to the EU is not a tariff, it is that the process is illegal in the EU.

If the UK leaves the EU and does not abide by EU regulations, then having a zero tariff is irrelevant. The UK’s current plan to create a lower regulation environment for UK produced goods, and similarly when making trade deals with the rest of the world, to import goods which do not meet EU standards.

In this respect, the main policing of the Customs Union is not by the UK, it is by the EU to protect themselves. We may freely take all EU goods, but the EU will likely not take ours.

On the items, the EU wants to make progress on….


N Ireland (previous post – Brexit and Ireland)

So far, we do not have much of a plan. The importance of the DUP since the election, means that there will not be a border drawn between N Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Apparently, the fact there is currently no smuggling issue between the North and Republic of Ireland, means that there will likely not be one after the UK leaves the Single Market and Customs Union.

The idea seems to be that we will have a hard border, but this will not require an actual border.

Again don’t ask me to explain that one.

Brexit Bill (previous post – Settling the Brexit Bill)

The EU has asked the UK to come up with a proposed number and methodology for its calculation.
They are still waiting.

EU Nationals status

The EU proposal is that everyone retains the automatic right to stay where they are.

The UK idea is that EU residents can apply for some kind of second-class citizen status.

Conclusion

So far, the only UK request that makes much sense to me has been to ask for more time.

Of course, a simpler way of doing this would have been to have delayed triggering Article 50 until we had some idea what we wanted.

Games 6 Why do people gamble?

In my previous post, I discussed how the common use of the word “gambling” mixes up volatility with randomness, and frequently leads to incorrect assumptions about skill.

Another perspective on gambling is examine people’s motivation.

Why do they do it?

There are four main motivations I can think of why people gamble

  1. For the excitement, the drama of winning and losing
  2. To add some interest to an activity
  3. To deliberately add volatility to an outcome
  4. To make money consistently


Volatility and expected value

Here is a framework with two dimensions “Expected Value” and “Volatility”.

Positive expected value is when you expect on average to make a profit
Negative expected value might be called “against the odds”.

High volatility means that the short-term outcome is highly uncertain
Low volatility means the outcomes are far more tightly distributed.

a. Excitement e.g. playing in a casino

This is the activity that most often comes to mind when we think of gambling: playing roulette in the casino, betting on horse racing. The desire to induce a feeling of vertigo is the primary purpose. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAaSJcIIruI

A key element to this form of gambling is that it has a negative expected value i.e. you lose on average. It is well known that casinos design their games to produce exactly this i.e. the house advantage. The player gets the excitement coming from high volatility; they will lose on average but they might win big tonight!

These games tend to be low skill. There may be a skill in minimising losses but this tends to reduce the volatility or “fun” element. For example, playing Blackjack with Basic Strategy, not difficult to learn, but extremely boring to play as every decision is pre-determined.

This motivation is very common but although I understand it, I do not really enjoy it myself. A low skill game, in which I expect to lose on average, sounds dreadful.

b. Adding interest e.g. betting on a football match you are watching

This is the form of gambling that I think of when I am engaged in an activity, and people say to me they want to “make it interesting”. We might be watching a football match, or playing golf together. There is an underlying activity but it can make it more fun if a monetary aspect is added.

Some people really like this and I think it’s because they really enjoy the gambling aspect i.e. they get to combine an activity they enjoy with gambling which they also enjoy (much like a. above). It could also be that they find the underlying activity a bit dull and want to add something to it to make it worthwhile. They want to experience the feeling of vertigo and having some “skin in the game” will induce or magnify that feeling.

But perhaps the important idea is that it means spectators have a reason to personally care. They are not just watching other people play a game, they have something that means that the outcome directly affects them.

c. Add volatility

This is an interesting category to me. This is where it is important to add volatility to a result and the impact on the immediate expected value is not so important.
Some example may help to clarify what I mean:

i) You owe a loan shark £10k and if you do not pay up in full tomorrow you will be killed. You only have £5k. A good plan is to walk into a casino and put £5k on black (or red). The fact that the bet itself is slightly negative expected value is irrelevant in the broader context.

ii) You are playing chess and are doing badly, perhaps simply down a pawn or two. If you carry on as you are playing sensible moves you will very likely lose. A good strategy here may be to embrace complexity; adding complexity to the board increases the chance of a mistake from either side and may outweigh the initial advantage. Conversely if you are winning, then the simplest route to victory is best i.e. a clear technical win rather than a beautiful attack.

iii) It is the end of a movie and to defeat the monster/get the guy (or girl) /win the game etc the hero acts in a way which is highly likely to fail, but if it succeeds will end in triumph.

What is interesting about this form of “gambling” is that it is highly rational, but only applies in specific situations. If these situations were to repeat, then the expected value and volatility would be highly damaging. Unless of course you are in a Fast and Furious sequel.

d. Make consistent profits

Professional poker players or expert traders/investors fall into this category. They expect to win on average, but accept in the short term they might not. They would prefer to minimise volatility, as they are not engaging in the activity for the excitement and drama, but to make a profit. The volatility is just a price to pay for the longer-term profits.

An aspect of this that is really interesting to appreciate is the extent to which a person who is primarily motivated by winning is usually trying to minimise the feelings of excitement and vertigo. Top sports people train themselves with exercises such as breathing techniques and mental training to disengage their emotional brain as it generally leads to worse performance. Just think about golfers under stress missing short putts or footballers missing penalties in a shootout. It is the same for poker players. The amateur loves the drama but the professional is doing a job.

It is debatable whether this category of wanting to make consistent profits should be even classified as gambling.
Different people have given me clear and differing views. My view is that calling it gambling is very misleading.

This category is exactly the OPPOSITE to the first one in the grid.

  • A pure gambler plays games with NEGATIVE expected value because he WANTS volatility and wants to MAXIMISE the feeling of vertigo
  • A professional plays games with POSITIVE expected value, DISLIKES volatility and wants to MINIMISE the feeling of vertigo.

Matching motivation to the activity

All four motivations make sense. But the motivation should true up to the activity. If you are not being honest about this, it will end badly for you.

a. Excitement
You should look for a game in which you minimise your negative expected value. Then you will be able to play for longer. The dangers of gambling addiction are a massive negative impact on your life.

b. Adding interest

If you like doing it, it seems easy to self-manage. The mistake would be to pretend this is your motivation but, if you are honest, it’s more the excitement of a. This could be a gambling problem in disguise and you need to ensure you do not gamble more than you can afford.

c. Adding volatility

It is a useful skill to recognise how and when you should add volatility to what you are doing. Sometimes in a limited sense it looks risky but when you see the bigger picture it is a very logical approach.

d. Making a profit
People who enjoy playing games of skill and are emotionally able to handle short-term volatility, will enjoy and may excel at.

It is possible that with this motivation you could be seen playing high stakes poker against better players. Your motivation however must be to learn, improve and develop your skill level so that your long-term expected value becomes positive. Other motivations such as you think you are going to win, are likely to be become expensive losses to you.

I described earlier how people commonly think that excitement a. motivates the people in my profession. I also meet plenty of students who love gambling and so want to become a trader. But people like this do not succeed as this is the wrong objective.

For trading and investing, the objective is positive expected value and you want to minimise excitement (volatility). In addition, your desires will likely overwhelm your ability to make profitable decisions.

Conclusion

People engage in activities with uncertain outcomes for very different reasons. If you assume that other people are doing them for the same reasons you are you may be making a big mistake. You need to make sure that your motivations match well with the games you are playing.

Games 5 What is gambling?

I have been writing about games recently: what they are, why we play them and common confusions from not understanding the importance of volatility. A category of game that is worth further investigation are those that falling under gambling.

Definition

Gambling:

  1. Playing games of chance for money / Betting on an uncertain outcome
    “gambling on a toss of the dice”
  2. Take risky action in the hope of a desired result / taking a chance (often) recklessly
    “If you don’t back up your data, that’s gambling”
    “I’m gambling that the new store will be a success.”

I find these two main dictionary definitions to be confusing enough by themselves, but the fact they both have very different meanings can lead to even more confusion.

Is money intrinsic to the game?

If money is not intrinsic to the game, then I would say you are gambling on the game rather than the game itself being gambling e.g. betting on the result of a football match or the number of goals. Football itself is not gambling. If you play golf for money, you are gambling on the game, but golf is not gambling.

In contrast for poker, betting is intrinsic to the game. Attempt to play poker without chips and the game is reduced in skill, becoming like snakes and ladders. Chips are to poker, what goals are to football. Poker tends to be called gambling while golf does not, mainly because the monetary aspect is intrinsic to the game. Here lies an obvious confusion in the definition of the word.

Game of chance

If we go back to the games categorisation, we can observe an important issue.

Volatility?

The first thing to note is that gambling is associated with high volatility. Few people would call playing chess gambling and no-one engages in low skill low volatility games.

Does high volatility imply gambling? It is not that simple. We saw above that it is the addition of money that is critical.

Skill?

Neither definition specifies whether the game or “risky” action involves skill. I think this looseness of definition illuminating. I would say that gambling commonly implies a game of low skill and random outcome. We have seen before how high volatility often leads to the incorrect conclusion that the game is random and low skill (Game 3) We now see a similar issue with games described as “gambling”.

Let’s compare two games:

Both games are referred to as “gambling” but bear crucial differences. Poker has high volatility, but I would not call it a “game of chance” so does not even fit the original definition. However, poker is commonly described as gambling or a gambling game.

Risky vs reckless

In the above definition, both risk and reckless appear and, in common usage, can be used similarly.
However, they are very different concepts.

Let’s take a golfing example. You were the last to play on the last day of the Masters, now standing on the 15th fairway, 192 yards from the flag. Your playing partner is 2 shots ahead of you. You go for the pin.[1]

Risky? Sure
He had not managed an eagle in his previous 450 holes at Augusta

Reckless? Not at all
He needed that eagle to make the payoff which he subsequently won for his first major.

Conclusion

The problem in the definition of gambling is that it does not differentiate between an act of random chance and something which involves a great deal of skill i.e. a non-deterministic outcome with a monetary consequence.

Again we see that this uncertainly in the outcome is misinterpreted is random (logic error) and therefore there is limited skill involved (logic error) and that risk is in fact often reckless (logic error). These confusions are similar to what we have seen in games generally, but still makes them hard to spot.

 


[1] http://www.golf.com/tour-news/2017/04/09/watch-sergio-garcias-eagle-15th-masters

Games 4 Fooled by Volatility

In the last post (Games 3), we looked at how people may be confused by volatility.
You might think that people who look at financial markets would not be so easily confused.

A great example of such a confusion comes from Nassim Taleb’s bestselling book “Fooled by Randomness”. I would possibly suggest the author has been “Fooled by Volatility”!

Here is my summary of the argument of the book, with my comments on it below:

1. Events have some randomness associated to them

TRUE
Hardly rocket science, but an underappreciated point.

2. Humans are poor at understanding randomness, overemphasizing the importance of small amounts of evidence (often outliers)

TRUE
You can find similar argument in many other books (Gladwell), but useful to highlight and he provides decent examples from finance.

3. People trading the market often assign their success to skill whereas they are just lucky

Partly TRUE
This is certainly at least partially true – some rich people are just lucky and are not smarter.
I think there is a legitimate debate on the degree to which the overall statement is true

4. All trading success is down to luck
Therefore success is evidence of luck


FALSE
This is a logic error. By appealing to the emotions and prejudices of the reader, some may not spot it. The book leaves the impression that all successful traders are just lucky.

Confused by volatility

The source of the error seems to be a conceptual confusion between volatility and randomness. The author observes that outcomes have volatility but names it randomness, since it is “random” this implies there must be no skill. This is exactly the mistake I described in the last post.

It is a shame because some of the underlying arguments (see above) are interesting and true. The fact that outcomes are only partially determined by merit and that people incorrectly over-attribute success to ability is often overlooked.

For a rather extreme example, apparently even Trump’s son-in-law Kushner believes he owes his position purely to merit despite inheriting a huge fortune, reportedly having his place at Harvard bought for him[1] and then marrying the daughter of a billionaire who becomes President.

The rest of the book

For completeness, some notes on the rest of the book:

5. Traders make money by selling tail risks. They all blow up in the end


FALSE
The assumption that this is the only form of trading that exists is ludicrous.
Again, appealing to the prejudices of a certain kind of reader, it implies successful traders aren’t just lucky, they are dangerous.

6. Traders who consistently buying tail risks are the only ones that understand probability, but may appear that they have low skill given their average performance.

 

FALSE
Here the suggestion is that consistently poor investment results are an indication of integrity and intelligence, which is again ridiculous. Another emotional argument to make people feel better about not being able to replicate the success of others.
See my thoughts on the link between desire and belief here (Desire – The Fatal Flaw).

7. Everyone else who makes money is just lucky, but Taleb can make money by being skillful

!!!!
Here the suggestion is Taleb is a unique genius

Summary:

It is a real pity that the arguments in this book are taken to an illogical extreme, but perhaps this is key to explain the popularity of the book. The points made in the first half of the book are significant and well explained (although not unique to Taleb).

I would have preferred if he had gone on to discuss how to spot the difference between skill and luck; or possibly how to avoid incentivising tail sell behaviour in financial markets.

Instead I read it as some kind of personal therapy about his career angst.
It reminds of a lovely quote – “all autobiography is a form of revenge”.[2]

 


[1] https://www.propublica.org/article/the-story-behind-jared-kushners-curious-acceptance-into-harvard

[2] As an aside Nocturnal Animals is a great movie on this theme.