Tiger Woods and the comfort of predictability

After more than 15 months in the wilderness, with goodness knows what to keep him entertained during his recovery from multiple back surgeries, Tiger finally came back to the PGA Tour this weekend and competed in the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas.

The entire sporting world watched and waited; could he begin down the road to superstardom once again?

We Brits absolutely love an underdog. We are far more comfortable cheering on someone who will almost certainly lose because it is actually quite relaxing. They almost always do lose, which is expected and therefore does not bring any form of great discomfort or very occasionally they will manage to overcome the odds – and then the celebrations go on for days. The defeat of Goliath by David is truly a glorious one.

And yet, I found myself actively hollering for Tiger. Not because he was an underdog in the tournament after his sabbatical, but because I realised that I wanted to see that greatness again, I wanted to experience the incredible mental belief that he showed every Sunday while wearing his red shirt and dominating every course and opponent laid before him. And part of this is because while we may not like a predictable outcome, we can always take great comfort from predictability. Because it means we actually understand part of what is going on around us on this vast planet, while being surrounded by so many wild and scary unknowns.

But in recent times, this warm comfort blanket has been violently pulled off our dozing souls and tossed into one corner of the room, leaving our pyjama wearing form to face some truly incredible global macro events. The two major ones are obvious; both Brexit and the successful campaign of Donald Trump were neither foreseen by the widespread general press nor by the bookies, who placed considerable odds in favour of the alternative result (and as we all know, the house is very rarely wrong).

One of the interesting aspects coming out of all of this (and ignoring all of the other repercussions which have been documented widely elsewhere) was the fact that the “pollsters” were very strongly leaning towards one outcome on both occasions, only to be proved very clearly incorrect. This had happened in a number of general elections immediately prior to this year as well, including the UK and Israeli elections in 2015. This group of people have chosen to dedicate their working lives to the analysis of probability and the principles of predicting the political future based on historical events and yet were almost universally wide of the mark.

When looking at the reasons behind this – and there are many – one of the aspects I personally think has been overlooked is the rise and influence of social media and the impact that it is having on the general populous. There was a time in which you could be fairly confident that if a particular newspaper or TV Channel reported upon a candidate or party in a certain manner, that view would be retained by a relatively predictable number of people, allowing pollsters to effectively check in on readership/viewing figures and make a sweeping generalisation about those people.

But, the reality is that the general population in most western cultures simply does not rely solely on mainstream media anymore. Everyone has access to an overwhelming amount of facts and figures at a touch of their smartphone’s buttons. They do not have to wait up until 9 pm every night to listen to the news, they frankly know things are happening three seconds after they occur. And once they have listened or read one account, if they’re interested in that story, they will almost certainly listen to or read a number of other perspectives on the same topic, all of which may come with slightly different twists on the same theme. The ironic result for a pollster then is that this creates a great unknown at their end from the very fact so much more is actually known by the people they are trying to predict.

And so, coming back to the annus horribilis that has been 2016, if the pollsters have been proved to be so inaccurate, does that begin to explain why the investment funds community has had such a tough run this year as well? Clearly, volatility can lead to some fantastic results if you have been able to see the wobble coming, but if we are all moving in the dark as to what is coming next, that leaves even the biggest and brightest people in our industry simply not knowing which way to turn.

By way of an example, there was a truly ridiculous day a few weeks ago as described in greater detail here. Detrick’s comment that “this is a confused market” couldn’t be more understated. We do not just have a confused market out there, we have a confused collective of 7.5 billion people wandering around this planet and wondering what the next negative and unpredictable turn will be.

Before we all start waving the white flag, the only comfort I can draw from this is that if we have reached the stage where we are all becoming doomsayers, maybe unpredictability will actually work in our favour for once. After all, Tiger managed to knock in 24 birdies over the course of this weekend which was more than any other player out there and no one saw that coming (sadly though, the rules of the tournament rather disappointedly also counted his bogeys which meant he finished 15th out of a field of 17). But there were signs that he may very genuinely rise once again. Let’s hope he brings a bull market with him.

Philip Graham
Philip is a partner and expert on offshore funds at Harneys who puts his ever increasing grey hairs down to three young children, supporting Liverpool Football Club, and being married. In no particular order.

One comment

  1. Philip, your topic was insightful, entertaining and thought-provoking indeed (coupled with the image of Tiger Woods that certainly encouraged a thorough read). There is one certainty that we can all agree on since Brexit and Trump USA – nothing is certain anymore!

    It is a wise observation that social media, and in essence the internet, has been the primary factor for the notable game-change. A vast majority of the population no longer must rely on only the perspective of main-stream media and its opinion of any particular subject; nowadays all such discussions are unrestricted and open to much scrutiny. The result, an unprecedented number of people with the unfettered ability to think for themselves, and subsequently action their ultimate decision as it pertains to the subject matter based entirely upon whatever information they have gathered and ultimately agree with or feel connected to.

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