“Never underestimate the power of doing nothing.” – Winnie the Pooh
“Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good.” – Soren Kierkegaard
Imagine a world where you could gain more knowledge by reading fewer books, see more of the world by minimizing travel and get more fit by doing less exercise. Certainly, a world where doing less gets you more is highly inconsistent with much of our lived experience, but is just the way Wall Street Bizarro World operates. If we are to learn to live in WSBW (and we must), one of the primary lessons to be learned is to do less than we think we should.
The psychobabble term for the tendency toward dramatic effort in the face of high stakes is “action bias.” Some of the most interesting research into action bias comes to us from the wild world of sports – soccer in particular. A group of researchers examined the behavior of soccer goalies when faced with stopping a penalty kick. By examining 311 kicks, they found that goalies dove dramatically to the right or left side of the goal 94 percent of the time. The kicks themselves, however, were divided roughly equally, with a third going left, a third right and a third near the middle. This being the case, they found that goalies that stayed centered had a 60 percent chance of stopping the ball, far greater than the odds of going left or right.
So why is it that goalies are given to dramatics when relative laziness is the most sound strategy? The answer becomes more apparent when we put ourselves in the shoes…er…cleats of the goalie (especially of goalies who live in countries where failure on the pitch is punishable by death). When the game and national integrity are on the line, you want to look as though you are giving a heroic effort, probabilities be damned! You want to give your all, to “leave it all on the field” in sportspeak and staying centered has the decided visual impact of stunned complacency. Similarly, investors tasked with preserving and growing their hard earned wealth do not want to sit idly by in periods of distress, even if the research shows that this is typically the best course of action.
A team at Fidelity set out to examine the behaviors of their best performing accounts in an effort to isolate the behaviors of truly exceptional investors. What they found may shock you. When they contacted the owners of the best performing accounts, the common thread tended to be that they had forgotten about the account altogether. So much for isolating the complex behavioral traits of skilled investors! It would seem that forgetfulness might be the greatest gift at an investor’s disposal.
Another fund behemoth, Vanguard, also examined the performance of accounts that had made no changes versus those who had made tweaks. Sure enough, they found that the “no change” condition handily outperformed the tinkerers. Meir Statman cites research from Sweden showing that the heaviest traders lose 4 percent of their account value each year to trading costs and poor timing and these results are consistent across the globe. Across 19 major stock exchanges, investors who made frequent changes trailed buy and hold investors by 1.5 percentage points per year.
Perhaps the best-known study on the damaging effects of action bias also provides insight into gender-linked tendencies in trading behavior. Terrance Odean and Brad Barber, two of the fathers of behavioral finance, looked at the individual accounts of a large discount broker and found something that surprised them at the time.
The men in the study traded 45 percent more than the women, with single men out trading their female counterparts by an incredible 67 percent. Barber and Odean attribute this greater activity to overconfidence, but whatever its psychological roots, it consistently degraded returns. As a result of overactivity, the average man in the study underperformed the average woman by 1.4 percentage points per year. Worse still, single men lagged single women by 2.3 percent – an incredible drag when compounded over an investment lifetime.
The tendency of women to outperform is not only seen in retail investors, however. Female hedge fund managers have consistently and soundly thumped their male colleagues, owing largely to the patience discussed above. As LouAnn Lofton of the Motley Fool reports, “…funds managed by women have, since inception, returned an average 9.06 percent, compared to just 5.82 percent averaged by a weighted index of other hedge funds. As if that outperformance weren’t impressive enough, the group also found that during the financial panic of 2008, these women-managed funds weren’t hurt nearly as severely as the rest of the hedge fund universe, with the funds dropping 9.61 percent compared to the 19.03 percent suffered by other funds.” Boys, it would seem, will be hyperactive boys, but few could have guessed the steep financial cost of action bias. At Nocturne Capital, we believe that active management is most powerful when it's...well...not all that active.
For more great content on the counterintuitive truths found in "Wall Street Bizarro World", please check out "The Laws of Wealth" by Nocturne founder Dr. Daniel Crosby
“A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore” — Yogi Berra
Odds are, you’re now familiar with the Parable of the Boiling Frog. A story that posits that a frog dropped in boiling water will hop right out of the pot, but that one placed in tepid water that is gradually raised to boiling will meet its demise. The absolute veracity of this metaphor is questionable, but the illustrative quality of the narrative is beyond reproach. The fact is, slow, incremental change can be damaging to us in profound ways. The imperceptibility of these changes leaves us helpless to react, and we only become aware of what’s happening once it is too late.
Sadly, there is a “boiling frog” dynamic at play in the way you think about money, something behavioral economists call the “money illusion.” As best described by Shafir, Diamond and Tversky, the money illusion “refers to a tendency to think in terms of nominal rather than real monetary values.”
In a nutshell, we think of numbers in a way that is disconnected from their purchasing power, and in so doing can make irrational personal financial decisions. Consider the ways in which a six figure salary or being a millionaire are still considered useful shorthand for wealth. While these may have been meaningful distinctions in say, the ’70s and even eye-popping in the ’20s, they simply don’t mean what they used to as a result of inflation and decreased purchasing power. The fact is that going forward, multimillionaire status will be required of even middle-class Americans who want to retire with peace of mind.
Inflation creep is slow and insidious, just like the proverbial boiling water, and just like the water, it can have lasting detrimental effects. Consider Yale professor Robert Shiller’s comments on the money illusion as we mentally account for our housing purchases,
“Since people are likely to remember the price they paid for their house from many years ago, but remember few other prices from then, they have the mistaken impression that home prices have gone up more than other prices, giving a mistakenly exaggerated impression of the investment potential of houses.”
Thus, people may overextend themselves to get into an expensive house, hoping for a large nominal return over the years, never realizing that the numbers they are looking at may not even be keeping up with inflation.
While getting in over your head on a home represents excessively risky behavior precipitated by the money illusion, it can just as soon lead to inappropriate risk aversion. Consider the “flight to safety” that occurs during most economic downturns. Investors flood into treasuries, which may not even keep up with inflation, while ignoring equities, which are at their greatest value in years. Truly conceptualized, nothing could be less safe than putting your assets in a class that minimizes purchasing power. By conceptualizing assets in nominal terms instead of “real dollars,” investors irrationally lock in an absolute loss in their efforts to protect against a nominal one.
Financial professional can help their clients understand purchasing power in a way that is aligned with their individual desires and aspirations. Advisers should emphasize that investors can be lured into focusing on illusory numbers that have little impact on their ability to meet their own needs. Because as we’ve seen, incremental negative changes can be as bad for your financial future as they are for a frog’s health.
With bad news seemingly everywhere and situated at the end of a long-in-the-tooth bull market it’s not hard to see why investors are rattled. But at times like this, it behooves investors to take a deep breath and rely on rules instead of emotions. To assist you in this difficult time, I’ve prepared a handful of “do’s” for worried investors, with the “don’ts” to follow in my next post.
Do Know Your History – Despite what political pundits and TV commentators would have you believe, this is not an unusually scary time to be alive. Although you’d never know it from watching cable, the economy is growing (slowly) and most quality of life statistics (e.g., crime, drug use, teen pregnancy) have been headed in the right direction for years! Markets always have and always will climb a wall of worry, rewarding those who stay the course and punishing those who succumb to fear.
Warren Buffett expressed this beautifully when he said, “In the 20th century, the United States endured two world wars and other traumatic and expensive military conflicts; the Depression; a dozen or so recessions and financial panics; oil shocks; a flu epidemic; and the resignation of a disgraced president. Yet the Dow rose from 66 to 11,497.” Such it has ever been, thus will it ever be.
Do Take Responsibility – Pop quiz! Which of the following do you think is most predictive of financial performance – a. market timing b. investment returns c. financial behavior? Ask most any man or woman on the street and they are likely to tell you that timing and returns are the biggest drivers of financial performance, but the research tells another story. In fact, the research says that you – that’s right – you, are the best friend and the worst enemy of your own portfolio.
Over the last 20 years, the market has returned roughly 8.25% per annum, but the average retail investor has kept just over 4% of those gains because of poor investment behavior. What happens in world financial markets in the coming years is absolutely out of your control. But your ability to follow a plan, diversify across asset classes and maintain your composure are squarely within your power. At times when market moves can feel haphazard, it helps to remember who is really in charge.
Do Work with a Professional – Odds are that when you chose your financial advisor, you selected her because of her academic pedigree, years of experience or a sound investment philosophy. Ironically, what you likely overlooked entirely is the largest value she adds – managing your behavior. Studies from sources as diverse as Aon Hewitt, Vanguard and Morningstar put the value added from working with an advisor at 2 to 3% per year. Compound that effect over a lifetime and the power of financial advice quickly becomes evident.
Vanguard suggests that the benefit of working with an advisor is “lumpy”, that is, the effects of working with an advisor are most pronounced during periods of volatility (like today). They go so far as to break out the impact of the various services provided by an advisor, and while asset management accounts for less than half of one percent, behavioral coaching accounts for fully half of the value provided by working with a professional. Today is the day your financial advisor earns her keep. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your advisor during times of fear and seek her reassurance and advice. After all, she’s saving you more money by holding your hand than by managing your money!