Philosophical Musings

August 23, 2007

Some More Shoddy Statistics

Filed under: business,investing,statistics — Elad Kehat @ 10:47 am

Founders know best, says USA Today: “Firms tend to prosper with founders at the helm“.
As a startup founder myself, I was naturally intrigued – what data supports this conclusion?

“Going back 15 years, stocks in founder/CEO companies have surged an average 970%, vs. a 222% gain for the S&P 500, according to data from S&P’s Capital IQ.”

Oh. See the problem? If not, read on…
The article goes on to try and explain (unsurprisingly, with no further hard data) why it is that founders are so successful at managing their own companies. No further consideration is given to the idea that this may just be a false correlation.
So here’s the problem: Del Jones and Matt Krantz, the USA Today reporters, compare the 15 year performance of companies with founder at the helm vs. companies in general.
What about an alternative explanation: public companies that have the same CEO at the helm for 15 years must have a damn good CEO. Otherwise they wouldn’t be successful and the board would find someone else for the job.
It’s nice that they use a system called “Capital IQ”, but a little more of it (or a passing understanding of statistics, or a minimum level of critical thought) would have prompted them to dig further and compare those founder/CEO companies to other companies that had the same CEO for the past 15 year. Would that study yield the same result? Or would that just lead to no article and an angry editor?

Or maybe it isn’t reporters fault:
“Ohio State University finance professor Rudi Fahlenbrach”. This is from a top-60 university?

And the “experts” seem to fall for it with no trouble at all:
“I should’ve attached more attention to it over the years,” says Rob Sellar, a money manager of Aberdeen Asset Management.
Really, Mr. Sellar? How about “attaching” more attention to what’s missing from the data? After all, there no telling in this “research” whether all companies headed by their founders succeed, just that public companies that had a leader successful enough to stay at the helm for the past 15 years are successful…


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