The Yankees' A Rod Problem: Sunk costs and investing
As any baseball fan knows, the New York Yankees have an A Rod problem. Just in case you have no idea what I am talking about, A Rod is Alex Rodriguez, the third baseman for the New York Yankees, signed in December 2007 to a one of the richest sports contracts in history. The Yankees, dazzled by the the numbers that A Rod posted in 2007 and by the possibility that he could become baseball's home run king (with 500 home runs, he seemed to be on a path to beating Barry Bond's record of 762 home runs), signed the then 33-year old to a ten-year contract worth $275 million (with numerous bonus clauses for breaking home run records).
The five years since have not measured up to expectations, with the disappointment building to a benched in the last two games against the Detroit Tigers. Now, the Yankees owe $114 million over the next 5 years to a 38-year old third baseman, who is susceptible to injuries and has seem to have lost his home run power and his capacity to hit right handed pitching.in the 2012 post-season, when A Rod's anemic hitting led to his being
The financial principle I was referencing is of course the one of sunk costs and anyone who has taken a basicclass knows the rule. A cost that you have already incurred or are contractually committed to incur should be ignored in your decision making. That rule, though, is easier enunciated than put into practice and here is a simple exercise to see why:
1B. Now assume that the same facts as in the prior case but also assume that you know that you have already spent $ 900 million on developing this product. Would you spend the additional $100 million?
If you are an investor, you may wonder what this post has to do with you. I think we are all susceptible to the sunk cost problem. To illustrate, let's try a different experiment:
2A. Assume that you are looking at a stock at $10/share and that you have valued the shares at $8/share. Would you buy the stock?
2B. Now assume that you are looking at the same stock
2C. Now assume that you are looking at the same stock
I am sure that the answer that you gave to question 2A was an unequivocal "No" but was your answer different for 2B? And how about 2C? (Remember that holding a stock in your portfolio is equivalent to buying the stock....) If the answers were different, why? After all, on an incremental basis, the choice is exactly the same, and an investor who would not buy the stock in 2A would have also sold the stock in 2B and 2C.
The problem is that investors seem to have different sets of rules, one for new or marginal investments, and one for existing investments. Rationally, your decision on whether to keep an investment in your portfolio should be based on whether that investment is cheap or expensive, given its price and value today, and not on what you originally paid for the investment or its value then. (I know that taxes can create a real issue here, but this problem seems to persist even for tax exempt investors.) However, we are human and almost by definition, we are not rational, and behavioral finance chronicles the costs that we bear. In particular, there is significant evidence that investors sell winners too early and hold on to losing stocks much too long, using a mixture of rationalization and denial to to justify doing so. Shefrin and Statman coined this the "disposition effect" and Terrence O'Dean looked at the trading records of 10,000 investors in the 1980s to conclude that this irrationality cost them, on average, about 4.4% in annual returns. Behavioral economists attribute the disposition effect to a variety of factors including over confidence (that your original analysis was right and the market is wrong), mental accounting (a paper loss is less painful than a realized loss) and lack of self control (where you abandon rules that you set for yourself).
So, is there anything that we can do to minimize the disposition effect? I don't have the answer but here are some things that you could consider. I employ the first two in my portfolio and while I cannot quantify how much they have saved me, they have brought me peace of mind.
- Regular value audits: The easiest path to the disposition effect is denial, where we refuse to look at the investments that we already have in our portfolio because we are afraid of what we may find. In fact, think about how much time we spend trying to come up with new investments to add to our portfolios (it is always more fun to start anew) and how little time we spend on maintenance investing. One practice that I have instituted for myself is that I have to value every company that is already in my portfolio at least once a year. It forces to me to take a look at the company, as if it were a new investment, and decide whether it deserves to stay in my portfolio another year. Since I have about 40 stocks in my portfolio, it does require some discipline but I think it has been well worth the cost.
- A selling rationale: Even with these value audits, I (like most investors) find it difficult to let go of losers, since selling a stock that has gone down is an explicit admission that I made a mistake. So, I provide myself with cover, especially at year end. For every winner that I sell each year (and I do sell one or two that have become over valued, at least in my judgment), I look for a loser (which is also over valued, in my judgment) that I will unload to reduce my tax exposure. Thus, rather than having to admit that I made a mistake, I can pat myself on the back for a savvy tax trade. Delusional, I know, but it helps...
- Automated rules: If the first two suggestions don't work, there is a third option, which is to take control of the decision out of your hands. You can put in a stop loss order, specifying that a stock that drops more than X% from your original purchase price, it gets sold automatically. It is a bludgeon, because that stock may very have become a bargain, but you may be saving yourself some bad disposition effect losses.
- Decision making separation: If it is the unwillingness to admit to your own mistakes that lies at the heart of the "disposition effect", it may be alleviated (at least in part) if the person making the assessment of whether to hold or sell a losing stock is not the person who made the mistake of buying the stock in the first place. Perhaps, mutual fund managers should work in pairs, with one manager responsible for making new investment picks and the other in charge of monitoring existing investments. Impossible to do for individuals, you might say... but I am considering talking to my wife about splitting the investment management role in our family. She can be the stock picker and I could be the stock assessor or vice versa.... One of us gets to make judgments on the other's mistakes.. On second thoughts, scratch that idea..
So, as we watch the Yankees tackle their A Rod problem, it is worth remembering that we all have our own versions of the same problem: a reluctance to admit to our past "investing" mistakes and let sunk costs be sunk costs.