Ideas

The Availability Heuristic - Why You Worry About the Wrong Stuff

Take a moment and imagine the person you love the most. Perhaps it’s your spouse or partner; maybe it’s a beloved parent. If that person is near, I’d like for you to put the book down and go give them a big hug. Tell them how much you appreciate them and all the reasons why you love them. If they aren’t proximal, say a small prayer of thanks or think good thoughts about the positive impact they have in your life before you return to reading. Go on…

…You back now? Ok, great, welcome back.

Now, I want you to realize that the person you’ve just spent the last few minutes idolizing is more likely to kill you than any stranger, terrorist or bogeyman. In fact, your appendix is more likely to off you than Al Qaida or ISIS. We have a tendency to fear all of the wrong things. We’re scared of high profile, low probability threats like terrorist attacks and home invasions, but we routinely ignore more mundane but probabilistic hazards like not wearing a seatbelt or eating unhealthily. In general, we stink at assessing risk in a number of predictable ways – we don’t have all the facts, we’re moody, we’re control freaks, we think we’re unique, we follow the crowd and we are scared of losing. I’d like to touch on each of these in turn and discuss how they impact your ability to live the best kind of life.

YOU DON’T HAVE ALL THE FACTS

Quick! Name all the words you can that begin with the letter “K.” Go on, I’m not listening. How many were you able to come up with?

Now, name all of the words you can in which K is the third letter. How many could you name this time?

If you are like most people, you found it easier to generate a list of words that begin with K; the words probably came to you more quickly and were more plentiful in number. But, did you know that there are three times as many words in which K is the third letter than there are that start with K? If that’s the case, why is it so much easier to create a list of words that start with K?

It turns out that our mind’s retrieval process is far from perfect, and a number of biases play into our ability to recall. Psychologists call this fallibility in your memory retrieval mechanism the “availability heuristic,” which simply means that we predict the likelihood of an event based on things we can easily call to mind. Unfortunately for us, the imperfections of the availability heuristic are hard at work as we attempt to gauge the riskiness of different ways of living.

In addition to having a memory better suited to recall things at the beginning and the end of a list, we are also better able to envision things that are scary. I know this first hand. Roughly six years ago, I moved to the North Shore of Hawaii along with my wife for a six-month internship. Although our lodging was humble, we were thrilled to be together in paradise and eager to immerse ourselves in all the local culture and natural beauty it had to offer. That is, until I watched “Shark Week.”

For the uninitiated, “Shark Week” is the Discovery Channel’s seven-day documentary programming binge featuring all things finned and scary. A typical program begins by detailing sharks’ predatory powers, refined over eons of evolution, as they are brought to bear on the lives of some unlucky surfers. As the show nears its end, the narrator typically makes the requisite plea for appreciating these noble beasts, a message that has inevitably been over- ridden by the previous 60 minutes of fear mongering.

For one week straight, I sat transfixed by the accounts of one-legged surfers undeterred by their ill fortune (“Gotta get back on the board, dude”) and waders who had narrowly escaped with their lives. Heretofore an excellent swimmer and ocean lover, I resolved at the end of that week that I would not set foot in Hawaiian waters. And indeed I did not. So traumatized was I by the availability of bad news that I found myself unable to muster the courage to snorkel, dive or do any of the other activities I had so looked forward to just a week ago.

In reality, the chance of a shark attacking me was virtually nonexistent. The odds of me getting away with murder (about 1 in 2), being made a Saint (about 1 in 20 million) and having my pajamas catch fire (about 1 in 30 mil- lion), were all exponentially greater than me being bitten by a shark (about 1 in 300 million). My perception of risk was warped wildly by my choice to watch a program that played on human fear for ratings and my actions played out accordingly.

The easy availability of financial news (especially the scary kind) paired with the human tendency to overweight danger means that many investors walk around in a state of near-panic all of the time. All the while, they are ignoring things that are truly damaging wealth over time like bad behavior, excessive fees, a lack of diversification and inadequate savings. It is only by understanding the means by which our brains can play tricks that we truly grasp that an expensive mutual fund is more hazardous than a recession just as surely as a hamburger can be more harmful than a shark. 

If you enjoyed this post, please check out THE LAWS OF WEALTH by Dr. Daniel Crosby of Nocturne Capital. 

A Taxonomy of Behavioral Risk

Psychologists and investment professionals have now identified over 100 separate biases, heuristics and cognitive quirks that cause us to make poor financial decisions. While this work is important, it is also unwieldy for the average investor who has a basic notion that behavior matters but is unable to track and protect against such a broad universe of potential error. Understanding that these 100+ errors are all undergird by a few common psychological tendencies, Nocturne Capital created this Behavioral Risk Taxonomy. The 5 general themes here encompass all of the individual errors but also provide a simple framework from which advisory and investment processes can be constructed that seek to overcome these tendencies. The ideas presented in the document linked below were instrumental in designing our investment process and we hope they are similarly instructive in your own efforts at compounding meaningful wealth. 

Behavioral Risk Taxonomy

Three Action Steps for a Volatile Market

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!

Great Investors Win by Not Losing

The image is indelibly etched in the mind of baseball fans everywhere. An injury-hobbled Kirk Gibson, sick with a stomach virus to boot, limp-running around second base and pumping his fist. Without a doubt, Gibby’s homerun is one of the most memorable in baseball history, setting up the Dodgers for an improbable Game One “W” and eventual Series win. But in remembering the heroics of the moment, we tend to forget all that came before.

The score at the time of Gibson’s unexpected plate appearance was 4 to 3 in favor of the Oakland Athletics, whose mulleted (and we now know, steroid-fueled) superstar Jose Canseco had hit a grand slam in the first inning. Canseco had an outstanding year in 1988, hitting .307 with 42 homeruns, 124 RBIs and, eye-popping by today’s standards, 40 stolen bases. Loading the bases in front of Canseco was massively risky as was throwing him the hanging slider that he eventually parked over the center field fence. But riskier still was sending Gibson to bat sick with the flu and hobbled by injuries sustained in the NLCS. That we don’t perceive it as risky is an example of what psychologists call “counterfactual thinking.” It turned out in the Dodgers favor, so Tommy Lasorda is viewed as a strategic genius. But had it not, and simple statistics tell us that getting a hit is never in even the best hitter’s favor, Lasorda would have been a goat.

Just as we laud improbable and memorable athletic achievements without adequately accounting for risk and counterfactuals, we do likewise with large and singular financial events. Paulson’s shorting of subprime mortgage products. Soros shorting $10 billion in currency. These events are so large, so memorable and worked out so favorably that we ascribe to them a level of prescience that may not actually correspond with the expected level of risk-adjusted return. A friend of mine once joked that, “every man thinks he is ten situps away from being Brad Pitt.” Having observed significant overconfidence among both professionals and novice traders alike, I might similarly assert that “every stock market enthusiast thinks that (s)he is one trade away from being George Soros.” The good fun we can have talking about, “The Greatest Trade of All Time” notwithstanding, most real wealth is accumulated by not losing rather than winning in spectacular fashion.

The danger in taking excessively risky bets with the hope of a spectacular win is best illustrated by what is formally known as variance drain. Variance drain is the difference between mean return and compound return over a period of time due to the variability of periodic returns. The greater the variability from peak to trough, the more the expected returns will deviate negatively. Confused?

Say you invest $100,000 each in two products that both average ten percent returns per year, one with great volatility and the other with managed volatility. The managed volatility money rises 10% for each of two years, yielding a final result of $121,000. The more volatile investment returns -20% in year one and a whopping 40% in year two, also resulting in a similar 10% average yearly gain. The good news is that you can brag to your golf buddies about having achieved a 40% return – you are the Kirk Gibson of the market! The bad news, however, is that your investment will sit at a mere $112,000, fully $9,000 less than your investment in the less volatile investment since your gains compounded off of lower lows.

A second, behavioral implication of volatile holdings is that the ride is harder to bear for loss-averse investors (hint: that means you and everyone you know). As volatility increases, so too does the chance of a paper loss which is likely to decrease holding periods and increase trading behavior, both of which are correlated with decreased returns. Baseball fans know the frustration of watching their favorite player “swing for the fences”, trying to end the game with a single stroke of the bat, when a single would do. Warren Buffett’s first rule of investing is to never lose money. His second rule? Never forget the first rule. The Oracle of Omaha understands both the financial and behavioral ruin that come from taking oversized risk, and more importantly, the power of winning by not losing.