Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Here's to some overcoming bias

Mahalanobis reports:

The WSJ reports for eight years John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, used a pseudonym to talk smack about how great his company was:

Rahodeb began posting messages about Whole Foods shares on in the late 1990s. He quickly gained a reputation as being one of the stock's biggest cheerleaders, and gamely defended himself when other posters chastised him for being too rosy. "I've never pretended to be anything but enthusiastic about WFMI," he wrote in 2000, using Whole Foods' stock symbol. "I admit to my bias -- I love the company and I'm in for the long haul. I shop at Whole Foods. I own a great deal of its stock. I'm aligned with the mission and values of the company... Is there something wrong with this?"

Rahodeb often sparred with other users, deploying a rigorous analysis of financial statements. "Your quarterly cash flow variance isn't statistically meaningful because the time period is too short," he complained to another user who had criticized Whole Foods in March 2006. He then pasted a summary of the previous six years of Whole Foods' operating cash flow. "Over the past 5 years operating cash flow has increased 330%," Rahodeb noted.

Mahalanobis is Ok with it, and so am I. In fact, I think this could be a very promising way for someone to avoid overconfidence, groupthink, appeals to authority and confirmation bias, status quo bias, among other serious biases. If a CEO has regularly to step down and be a nobody and argue for his stock prices using publicly available data, all these biases vanish. The guy obtains crucial, incisive criticism. If only the folks at the White House (or, for that matter, Brasília), were to try it.