The “Paradox of Skill” is the recognition that as the average skill level of a group increases, it actually becomes harder and harder for superstars to occur; as the skill level rises, the variability around the group average declines. This phenomenon helps to explain why despite the improvement in baseball players, no one has hit over .400 since Ted Williams did it 75 years ago, and also provides insight on why it’s getting harder and harder to find “good” active investment managers. Because the whole field has gotten so much better, it’s actually become incredibly difficult to stand out from the (already excellent) pack.
As a result, a growing base of data suggests that the amount of available alpha is shrinking, a combination of both the paradox of skill itself, and the mere fact that more and more investment research is revealing previously unknown investment factors that, once known, can no longer be exploited the way they were in the past.
Yet despite this trend, a number of known investment opportunities have continued to persist, even though they’re widely known. For instance, it’s long since been documented that small cap outperforms large cap, that value generates a long term premium over growth, and that stocks exhibit momentum effects. But for all the research showing these outperformance opportunities to be available, investors fail to invest sufficiently to fully take advantage of them.
The gap, however, may be at least partially explained by the growing field of behavioral finance, and research that shows all the ways that we fail to invest “rationally” despite having all the available information (or without bothering to get it in the first place). And in point of fact, many of the most popular – and persistent – alpha opportunities, from small caps to value to momentum, are actually well-explained by common behavioral biases (including the availability, familiarity, and recency biases) that are hard-wired into our brains. Which helps to explain why they’re persistent – because their very nature is the tendency to impact our investment decisions, even when we “should” know better.
Of course, the caveat is that “sustainable alpha” opportunities created by persistent behavioral biases may be the hardest to exploit, precisely because those behavioral biases impact us as well – both in the investment decisions we make, and as advisors, the investment decisions we must justify to clients (who themselves have the same biases). Or viewed another way, it may be the persistent challenge and “risk” of trying to buck the behavioral trends that generates the risk premium associated with sustainable alpha in the first place!