What Yogi Berra, Pete Carroll, and Fantasy Football Can Teach Us About Investing

Can watching sports and playing fantasy football make you a better investor? Definitely, says Oakmark’s Howard Marks – if you take away the right lessons.

In a piece for Barron’s, Marks talks about the lessons investors can learn from the consistency of the late Yogi Berra; from the Seattle Seahawks’ controversial playcalling decision at the end of last season’s Super Bowl; and from the world of fantasy sports. Berra, he says, may not have had the tape-measure power of sluggers like Reggie Jackson, but he was remarkably consistent throughout his career, often ranking among the league leaders in games played, fewest passed balls and errors committed, and fewest strikeouts per plate appearance. “Consistency and minimization of error are two of the attributes that characterized Yogi’s career, and they can also be key assets for superior investors,” Marks writes. “They aren’t the only ways for investors to excel: some great ones strike out a lot but hit home runs in bunches the way Reggie Jackson did. … [But] Consistency and minimization of error have always ranked high among my priorities and Oaktree’s, and they still do.”

Marks also discusses how building a fantasy football roster is akin to building a value investing portfolio – and how the hype around fantasy sports is akin to the hype around the stock market. Just as sports betting firms try to lure people in by making victory seem easy, brokers try to lure investors in by making success seem likely – with both taking some of your money in the form of fees. In both sports and investing, “experts” offer their prognostications on future performance, and in both cases, Marks says, they rarely do better than they would if they were flipping a coin.

Marks also talks about “first-level” and “second-level” thinking through the lens of sports. He notes that the Seahawks were widely criticized for their decision to throw the ball at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. But while running the ball may have seemed like a better decision on the surface (first-level thinking), Marks says a closer inspection of the numbers (second-level thinking) indicates otherwise. He says that the best investors exercise second-level thinking, digging deeper into the facts and data. And, he says that investors have to understand that a well reasoned decision won’t always lead to success – that’s what he says appears to have been the case with Seattle.

Here is Marks’ list of key investing lessons to take away from sports:

  • For most participants, success is likely to lie more dependably in discipline, consistency and minimization of error, rather than in bold strokes – high batting average and an absence of strikeouts, not the occasional, sensational home run.
  • But in order to be superior, a player has to do something different from others and has to have an appropriate level of confidence that he can succeed at it. Without conviction he won’t be able to act boldly and survive bouts of uncertainty and the inevitable slump.
  • Because of the significant role played by randomness, a small sample of results is far from sure to be indicative of talent or decision-making ability.
  • The goal for bettors is to see value in assets that others haven’t yet recognized and that isn’t reflected in prices.
  • At first glance it seems effort and “common sense” will lead to success, but these often prove to be unavailing.
  • In particular, it turns out that most people can’t see future outcomes much better than anyone else, but few are aware of this limitation.
  • Before a would-be participant enters any game, he should assess his chances of winning and whether they justify the price to play.