Monthly Archives: March 2021

Book Report: Fortune’s Formula

Reading Time: 3 minutes

“The sad fact is, almost everyone who gambles, goes broke in the long run.” – Fortune’s Formula, pp. 49

This is meant to be more of a book report, than a review.  In particular, I want to highlight three lessons from the book, Fortune’s Formula by William Poundstone, that I found impactful.  This also serves as a way for me to recall influential points in the book.

I enjoyed the book, which was an introduction into a few folks I did not know much about – Claude Shannon, Edward Thorp, and John Kelly, Jr.  And it covered topics that I always find entertaining – investing, making money, math, and even had a section titled “Entropy.”

However, three topics that did alter my perspective were:

  1. Correlations

“LTCM goofed by greatly underestimating the chance of a panic in which its trades would become highly correlated.  The fund was making hundreds of simultaneous bets.  It operated on the assumption that these bets had low correlation.” – pp 294

It has been awhile since I have spent time on Long Term Capital Management (LTCM), although When Genius Failed by Roger Lowenstien is still sitting on my bookshelf after many moves.

The above quote caught my attention.  

As I have written previously, the increasing correlations between asset classes in today’s market seem like something folks should be taking into consideration.  The same rising tide has caused all boats to float.

  1. Survival 

“The Kelly bettor cannot be ruined in a single toss.” – pp. 297

“It is that even unlikely events must come to pass eventually.  Therefore, anyone who accepts small risks of losing everything will lose everything sooner or later.” – pp .297

“This illustrates the ‘paranoid’ conservatism of Kelly betting.  The chance of hundreds of coins simultaneously coming up tails is is of course astronomically small.  No matter – the ideal Kelly gambler’s ‘survival motive’ precludes taking any chance of ruin whatsoever.” – pp. 295

The theme of always ensuring you live to fight another day in the Kelly system reminded me of a main theme in Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  To paraphrase, if the action undertaken has the risk of ruin or death, then the overall probabilities can be a little pointless.  In other words, once you are ruined or dead, the probabilities of future gains are irrelevant.

“This fragility that comes from path dependence is often ignored by businessmen who, trained in static thinking, tend to believe that generating profits is their principal mission, with survival and risk control something to perhaps consider – they miss the strong logical precedence of survival over success.” – Antifragile, pp. 160.

  1. Overbetting

“For true long-term investors, the Kelly criterion is the boundary between aggressive and insane risk-taking.  Like most boundaries, it is an invisible line.” – pp. 298

Investment sizing or “bite size”, as well as appropriate levels of diversification, is something I have been spending time on.  The entire Kelly system is designed around the appropriate way to size bets based on the ratio of the edge – how much you expect to win – compared to the odds – the public odds.

“A fractional Kelly bet doesn’t sacrifice much return.  In case of error it is less likely to push the bettor into insane territory.” – pp. 233

But given where the market seems to be and the increasing correlations, I have been keeping bite size small.

“Risk management is a tough lesson to learn on the job.  It can take years for ruinous overbetting to blow up in a trader’s face.” – pp. 303

This would be called “resulting” in the terminology of Thinking In Bets by Annie Duke.  Giving too much credit for the outcome, regardless of the process.

Book Report: The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Reading Time: 2 minutes

“That’s the hard thing about hard things—there is no formula for dealing with them.” – Ben Horowitz

This is meant to be more of a book report, than a review.  In particular, I want to highlight three lessons from the book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz, that I found impactful.  This also serves as a way for me to recall influential points in the book.

This was another book that I did not know much about going into it.  While I am not a CEO, I sit close enough to that seat, that I got a lot out of this book.  I have spent a good portion of my career in early and growth stage companies and could appreciate a lot of the author’s experiences as well.  The book also gave me some perspective to look back at the CEOs that I have worked closely with and evaluate why some of their behaviors and styles worked and why others fell short.

However, three topics that did alter my perspective were:

  1. Reward Employees for Identifying Problems 

“The resulting action item for CEOs: Build a culture that rewards—not punishes—people for getting problems into the open where they can be solved.”

This one kind of flew in the face of a common maxim – “don’t bring up problems without solutions.”  The point being that in many cases the employee identifying the problem may not be in a position to provide a solution.  Or maybe finding a solution is going to take a broader effort or a larger organizational decision.  It makes a lot of sense, especially in the context of a start-up or growth stage business, to reward employees for raising issues.  There are going to be lots of challenges and problems.  Get them on the table so the organization can solve them.

  1. Hire for Strengths

“Hire for strength rather than lack of weakness.”

“You hired for lack of weakness rather than for strengths. This is especially common when you run a consensus-based hiring process.”

I am really not a big fan of consensus driven hiring processes.  For most hires, I think the hiring manager should have a lot of latitude in picking the person she feels best fits her team.  This is also where having an HR team in place that understands the team culture and the role can make a lot of difference.

For executive hires, I agree here as well.  I think the executive team or portions of the executive team should be consulted, but more on a confirmatory basis.  However, this is really the CEO’s job to build the team.  It’s ultimately her decision, and her decision alone.  

  1. Build A Good Company 

“If you do nothing else, be like Bill and build a good company.”

Sometimes I can get a little tone deaf on some of the softer organizational things.  This was a good reminder that building a good place to work should be a top priority.  This is not to say that I think for one minute that gift cards, swag, snacks, and other “perks” will make a company a good place to work.

At the end of the day, what else are you going to have, if you haven’t built a good company?  In my opinion, this is hiring the right kind of people, providing challenging work, rewarding the right kinds of behaviors, minimizing politics and bureaucracy, and having fun.

Influential Reads – February 2021

Reading Time: 2 minutes

February had a lower reading count for a few reasons.  First, we had a much needed week of vacation that kept us busy and on the road a bit. It’s the first time we’ve really traveled outside of the area since October. Second, work has just been busy.  Third, I am reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, which I am enjoying but it’s taking me some time to get through the book.  The book is recommending a deliberate disconnection from digital distractions and I am beginning to feel that reading the news falls into that category for me. I am going to spend a bit of time reflecting on that.

Updated stats through February:

Read ArticlesBooks

Here are my most influential reads – in no particular order:

  1. Democrats eye big ACA changes in COVID relief bill – “Any attempt to control the cost of care would quickly erode any support from the health care industry.”
  2. AOC Won’t Stop Haunting Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley – “You’re not ‘muzzled,’ Hawley. You’re just deeply unpopular, and aided insurrection.”
  3. Normalcy – “The damage of social media and Fox News propaganda remains: 73 percent of Republicans still believe the 2020 election was marred by widespread voter fraud. The hate machines whir on.”
  4. Eventual Failure of False Beliefs – “I don’t even has to name the players, sites, or brands — you know exactly who I am referring to, the enablers of all those people who exist within a bubble of their own making, while steering utterly clear of reality.”
  5. Google’s next big Chrome update will rewrite the rules of the web – “When Google does remove them [third party cookies] in 2022, it won’t be first – but its huge market share does mean it will have the biggest impact.”
  6. A Subtle Mistake About How to Acquire Useful Career Skills – “A different style of project, however, does seem to work better: benchmark projects.”
  7. A Global Stock Fund That Couldn’t Care Less About the Growth-Versus-Value Debate – “For Global Focus, he starts his research by looking for structural change—either new companies doing something different or older companies doing something new.”
  8. Calculating the Rule of 40 – “Weighted Rule of 40 = (1.33 * Revenue Growth) + (0.67 * EBITDA Margin)” – Stephen here: I hate a charade.  Can we just admit that investors don’t care about profitability.  Growth, growth, growth!
  9. Texas seceded from the nation’s power grid. Now it’s paying the price. – “There are, in the contiguous United States, three major interconnected systems — one covering everything east of the Rocky Mountains, one for everything west of the Rocky Mountains, one for Texas.”
  10. Yoga for Cyclists: Five Poses to Make you Faster – “A strong core and back are essential capabilities for cyclists. Chaturanga is an exercise that can easily be integrated into your routine to target core strength, back strength, and upper body strength.”

Note: This is based on when I read the article, not necessarily when it was first published.  Unfortunately, my backlog of things I would like to read always seems to dwarf the amount of time I can devote to reading.


Reading Time: 2 minutes

There’s been volumes written on the topic of diversification.  The pros, the cons.  What diversification really means?  How many positions one needs to hold to be diversified?  

Here are some good quotes. I doubt I could add anything useful if I tried. However, I mostly agree with the below statement.

“Being truly diversified means that there almost always will be a part of your portfolio that is sucking wind. (Big note: if every piece of your portfolio is working really well, it means one of two things: you’re incredibly lucky or you are not actually diversified. I would assume the latter.)” – De Thomas Wealth Management

Here’s what the holdings look like in my account where I attempt to deploy a broad, diversified, ETF strategy.

Not too much pain here…

I assure you this is a broad mix of ETFs representing equities, fixed income, real estate across U.S., international, emerging markets, etc.  Most would call this a well diversified portfolio.

The fact that almost every fund is pegged up against its 52 week high makes me more than nervous.  The issue is not that these aren’t funds holding diversified assets.  The issue is almost every asset is moving up together and correlations among asset classes are increasing. 

“He notes that the correlation between the yield on the Barclays Global Aggregate Bond index and global stocks currently sits at 0.24—a correlation of 1 means two assets move in lockstep—and has been fairly steady since the market stabilized after the coronavirus meltdown. If the correlation turns negative, which would mean that stocks and bonds move in opposite directions, it could be bad news for equities. “ – Barrons

When did stocks and bonds start moving in the same direction? It used to be, they didn’t.

So how do you diversify when correlations are increasing? 

Well, if most asset classes are going up, then you probably don’t care about diversification as much or the fact that correlations are increasing. Higher correlations mean assets are moving in the same direction. If that direction is up, then I guess higher correlations are good.

However, you will probably start to care about diversification and correlations more if the wheels start coming off. I’ve found this chart helpful in thinking through that problem historically.

Although as the chart says, past performance is not an indication of future performance.