How a cat beat professionals at stockpicking

A teachable moment.

The Observer spent 2012 challenging a panel of professional stockpickers – a wealth manager, stockbroker and fund manager – to beat schoolchildren and a cat at making a profit from the stock market. The cat won:

Each team invested a notional £5,000 in five companies from the FTSE All-Share index at the start of the year. After every three months, they could exchange any stocks, replacing them with others from the index.

By the end of September the professionals had generated £497 of profit compared with £292 managed by Orlando. But an unexpected turnaround in the final quarter has resulted in the cat's portfolio increasing by an average of 4.2% to end the year at £5,542.60, compared with the professionals' £5,176.60.

Click through for some awful puns.

Naturally, this is a teachable moment. Matt Yglesias points out that, even if the cat had lost, once fees are factored in it would almost certainly have beaten the professionals. The traditional "2 and 20" fee of hedge fund managers – that's two per cent of the investment and 20 per cent of the profit – is easily enough to turn a market-beating fund into a market-losing investment.

But the cat may have been aided by the year in which the competition took place. Zero Hedge reports that, over 2012, the S&P rose 16 per cent, meaning that:

A whopping 88% of hedge funds, as well as some 65% of large-cap core, 80% of large cap value, and 67% of small-cap mutual funds underperformed the market.

Barron's explains why a strong index is bad for hedgies:

Hedge funds typically lag behind broader indexes slightly during years with double-digit S&P gains—they do have to hedge, after all—but it's rarely by this much.

Managers across all strategies are concerned about another 2008-like market crash, but in the meantime, they've been hurt by central banks' persistence at keeping interest rates low. Add in volatility and a U.S. presidential election where the top three issues are the economy, the economy, and the economy, and it's clear that hedge-fund managers are more concerned about managing risk than gambling on equities. Investors and other industry observers say that for perhaps the first time since the phrase hedge fund entered the lexicon, hot or gimmicky strategies aren't worth investing in at all. It's the manager that counts.

The cat was picking from the FTSE rather than S&P, but much the same lessons apply. Markets have performed well this year; gimmicky stockpicking strategies haven't; and, of course, there was a healthy dose of feline luck.

But maybe hedge funds and stockpicking are always over-valued? Warren Buffett thinks so; he made a $1m bet in 2007 that:

Over a ten-year period commencing on January 1, 2008, and ending on December 31, 2017, the S&P 500 will outperform a portfolio of funds of hedge funds, when performance is measured on a basis net of fees, costs and expenses.

That's critical of funds-of-funds – which add another layer of returns-destroying fees – but it's representative of a growing trend. If you must invest in something more complicated than an all-shares index, try a dart-board and a list of stocks.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.