From soaring profits to unrecoverable losses - Icarus Paradox in investing
The art of investing primarily requires patience and objectivity. Investors have a plethora of factors, metrics, and statistics to judge the viability and returns offered by prospective listings. However, amidst all the frameworks and analytics, the qualitative factor is often overlooked. When judging the potential growth of a company, investors are often misled by the optimistic projections that support the hypothesis that past factors which made the company a success shall drive future growth as well. However, aligning your investments with a mentality that “what has worked till now, will also work in the future” under the guise of consistency might lead to you falling prey to the Icarus Paradox.
Drawing inspiration from the Greek legend of Icarus, the paradox is applicable to all businesses. Icarus was gifted wings made of feathers stitched together with beeswax by his father Daedalus, so he could fly out of prison to freedom. The escape was successful as Icarus flew beyond the prison walls, soaring into the sky. Marvelling at his newfound ability to fly, Icarus, despite repeated warnings from his father, flew too close to the sun. Unsurprisingly, the wax holding together the feathers of his wings melted, causing Icarus to fall to his death. Therefore, the story of Icarus witnesses fantastical innovation, in the beginning, allowing him to regain his freedom but, in the face of different circumstances during his upward soar, the very innovation which was the cause of Icarus’s success led to his demise, thus becoming the reason for his failure. Hence, the legend is paradoxical in the sense that the very cause for Icarus’s legendary rise leads to his great demise.
The legend has been witnessed time and time again even in the modern-day where successful businesses unknowingly don the role of Icarus in their hesitance to stray from their previous course of action, inevitably failing in the most epic fashion. When businesses become successful, they often get too attached to their initial cause of success, be it their initial product, service, ideology, technology, etc. However, the same bias blinds them to newer developments which eventually culminate into their abrupt failure borne out of the very elements that led to their initial success. The phenomenon has been witnessed in countless instances and the observations were coined by Danny Miller in the form of a neologism, known as the Icarus Paradox.
The common and recurring nature of the paradox is quite evident when attention is drawn to the fact that only 19 businesses featured on Fortune 100 companies in 1996 managed to maintain their presence in the Fortune 100 edition of 2006 as well. Out of the hundred behemoths of 1996, 66 ceased to exist in a span of ten years, whereas the other 15 were displaced from their status. Companies like Xerox, Kodak, Lehman Brothers, Kingfisher, Blockbuster, Yahoo, and countless more fell prey to their own blind ambition that burnt them. For example, allegiance towards past factors like a product in the case of Polaroid and Apple or service in the case of Blockbuster or even an ideology like the one possessed by Kingfishers, Lehman Brothers, and many more led to their abrupt failure.
Although the prospect of failing due to the very same reasons that formed your success is scary and hard to comprehend, it also begs the question of whether the fallen angels who fell prey to this tragedy could ever rise again? The most notable example of a business that recovered from the Icarus Paradox is the story of Apple, the giant that rose from its ashes after flying too close to the sun only to get burnt. The roll-out of Macintosh II in the 1980s was a huge success for the company, putting them on the map and being the best performing product, all resources were directed towards its development. Despite Steve Jobs’ insistence to move to a new product, Apple stayed its course under investor influence and soon met the worst performing years in its history, as the world deemed Mac II obsolete and moved on. However, Steve Jobs resuscitated the company on his return, by deeming Mac II as the past, focusing on new products catering to the future, thus launching the iMac.
The paradox holds true for fund managers, investment advisors, and investors as well. All of us fall into the trap of continuing with the decisions that led to our initial success, banking that those bets will prove to be successful in the future as well. For example, the multitudes who invested in real estate in the 1990s and early 2000s saw phenomenal returns. These returns blinded the investors to obvious cracks in the housing system, thus causing them to perish during the housing crisis of 2008. The same is witnessed with stocks where investors tend to stick with ones that fetched them initial profits, not looking for other opportunities and inevitably realizing their mistake when it becomes too late. The simplest way to not fall prey to the Icarus Paradox in investing is to have an objective look at all decisions, with an open mind free of preconceived notions. Sometimes, an outside eye helps identify any form of bias that may be exhibited by one’s investment decisions. Naturally, it is of utmost importance to not get too attached to the cash cows of one’s portfolio and always look to diversify and ensure the long-term profitability of the already well-performing investments.
Addressing the problem in a different tone in his book No Rules Rules, Netflix founder Reed Hastings said that the inability to disrupt oneself, to destroy your own creation to make way for something better, to take risks by charting into new territories is a recipe for failure. Thus, the misconception among management and investors that past success will also guide future growth is one of the deadliest traps for businesses. In order to avoid falling prey to this paradox, investors sometimes ask the entrepreneurs to step down from their position, since they were best fit to run the start-up till that point, and henceforth, a professional manager would be better suited. In recent times, the obsession to constantly innovate and disrupt has turned into a desperate bid to not get replaced or become obsolete. This is in reference to the Big Tech companies, which operate on the ideology of acquiring every business that can potentially become a competitor and patenting every remote idea before it turns to reality. While multitudes of investors have put their faith in these companies as evident by their soaring stock prices, some analysts believe that their misguided culture of reinvention .i.e, the alleged reason behind the success of these companies might turn into the cause of their demise. The question is left for investors around the world to answer: Will Big Tech become the modern age Icarus?
Author: Jayesh Rungta
Illustration by: Harsh Agarwal