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In lending as in baseball, Moneyball is no longer enough

In 2011, data scientists and credit risk managers finally found an appropriate analogy to explain what we do for a living. “You know Moneyball? What Paul DePodesta and Billy Beane did for the Oakland A’s, I do for XYZ Bank.” You probably remember the story: Oakland had to squeeze the most value out of its limited budget for hiring free agents, so it used analytics — the new baseball “sabermetrics” created by Bill James — to make data-driven decisions that were counterintuitive to the experienced scouts. Michael Lewis told the story in a book that was an incredible bestseller and led to a hit movie. The year after the movie was made, Harvard Business Review declared that data science was “the sexiest job of the 21st century.”

Coincidence?

The importance of data

Moneyball emphasized the recognition, through sabermetrics, that certain players’ abilities had been undervalued. In Travis Sawchik’s bestseller Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles, and the End of a 20-Year Losing Streak, he notes that the analysis would not have been possible without the data. Early visionaries, including John Dewan, began collecting baseball data at games all over the country in a volunteer program called Project Scoresheet. Eventually they were collecting a million data points per season. In a similar fashion, credit data pioneers, such as TRW’s Simon Ramo, began systematically compiling basic credit information into credit files in the 1960s.

Recognizing that data quality is the key to insights and decision-making and responding to the demand for objective data, Dewan formed two companies — Sports Team Analysis and Tracking Systems (STATS) and Baseball Info Solutions (BIS). It seems quaint now, but those companies collected and cleaned data using a small army of video scouts with stopwatches. Now data is collected in real time using systems from Pitch F/X and the radar tracking system Statcast to provide insights that were never possible before. It’s hard to find a news article about Game 1 of this year’s World Series that doesn’t discuss the launch angle or exit velocity of Eduardo Núñez’s home run, but just a couple of years ago, neither statistic was even measured. Teams use proprietary biometric data to keep players healthy for games. Even neurological monitoring promises to provide new insights and may lead to changes in the game.

Similarly, lenders are finding that so-called “nontraditional data” can open up credit to consumers who might have been unable to borrow money in the past. This includes nontraditional Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)–compliant data on recurring payments such as rent and utilities, checking and savings transactions, and payments to alternative lenders like payday and short-term loans. Newer fintech lenders are innovating constantly — using permissioned, behavioral and social data to make it easier for their customers to open accounts and borrow money. Similarly, some modern banks use techniques that go far beyond passwords and even multifactor authentication to verify their customers’ identities online. For example, identifying consumers through their mobile device can improve the user experience greatly. Some lenders are even using behavioral biometrics to improve their online and mobile customer service practices.

 

Continuously improving analytics

Bill James and his colleagues developed a statistic called wins above replacement (WAR) that summarized the value of a player as a single number. WAR was never intended to be a perfect summary of a player’s value, but it’s very convenient to have a single number to rank players.

Using the same mindset, early credit risk managers developed credit scores that summarized applicants’ risk based on their credit history at a single point in time. Just as WAR is only one measure of a player’s abilities, good credit managers understand that a traditional credit score is an imperfect summary of a borrower’s credit history. Newer scores, such as VantageScore® 4.0, are based on a broader view of applicants’ credit history, such as credit attributes that reflect how their financial situation has changed over time. More sophisticated financial institutions, though, don’t rely on a single score. They use a variety of data attributes and scores in their lending strategies.

Just a few years ago, simply using data to choose players was a novel idea. Now new measures such as defense-independent pitching statistics drive changes on the field.

Sabermetrics, once defined as the application of statistical analysis to evaluate and compare the performance of individual players, has evolved to be much more comprehensive. It now encompasses the statistical study of nearly all in-game baseball activities.

 

A wide variety of data-driven decisions

Sabermetrics began being used for recruiting players in the 1980’s. Today it’s used on the field as well as in the back office. Big Data Baseball gives the example of the “Ted Williams shift,” a defensive technique that was seldom used between 1950 and 2010. In the world after Moneyball, it has become ubiquitous. Likewise, pitchers alter their arm positions and velocity based on data — not only to throw more strikes, but also to prevent injuries.

Similarly, when credit scores were first introduced, they were used only in originations. Lenders established a credit score cutoff that was appropriate for their risk appetite and used it for approving and declining applications. Now lenders are using Experian’s advanced analytics in a variety of ways that the credit scoring pioneers might never have imagined:

  • Improving the account opening experience — for example, by reducing friction online
  • Detecting identity theft and synthetic identities
  • Anticipating bust-out activity and other first-party fraud
  • Issuing the right offer to each prescreened customer
  • Optimizing interest rates
  • Reviewing and adjusting credit lines
  • Optimizing collections

Analytics is no substitute for wisdom

Data scientists like those at Experian remind me that in banking, as in baseball, predictive analytics is never perfect. What keeps finance so interesting is the inherent unpredictability of the economy and human behavior. Likewise, the play on the field determines who wins each ball game: anything can happen. Rob Neyer’s book Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game quotes the Houston Astros director of decision sciences: “Sometimes it’s just about reminding yourself that you’re not so smart.”