Peter L Bernstein: Halfway home

‘Time is the dominant factor in gambling. Risk and time are opposite sides of the same coin, for if there were no tomorrow there would be no risk. Time transforms risk, and the nature of risk is shaped by the time horizon: the future is the playing field.

Time matters most when decisions are irreversible. And yet many irreversible decisions must be made on the basis of incomplete information. Irreversibility dominates decisions ranging all the way from taking the subway instead of a taxi, to building an automobile factory in Brazil, to changing jobs, to declaring war. 

If we buy a stock today, we can always sell it tomorrow. But what do we do after the croupier at the roulette table cries, “No more bets!” or after a poker bet is doubled? There is no going back. Should we refrain from acting in the hope that the passage of time will make luck or the probabilities turn in our favor? 

Hamlet complained that too much hesitation in the face of uncertain outcomes is bad because “the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought . . . and enterprises of great pith and moment . . . lose the name of action.” Yet once we act, we forfeit the option of waiting until new information comes along. As a result, not-acting has value. The more uncertain the outcome, the greater may be the value of procrastination. Hamlet had it wrong: he who hesitates is halfway home.’

—Peter L Bernstein. 

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