The Psychology of Investing: How We Cope With Risk

Researchers have found that investors have a tendency to psychologically exaggerate declines in the performance of an investment and to minimize gains. It’s a phenomenon with a complex sounding name — “myopic loss aversion” — but also one that makes a simple point: Psychology plays a role in our investment decisions. Understanding that role, the subject of this second installment of a three-part series on investment risk, may help you stay on course toward your long-term financial objectives.

Word Play

Individuals subconsciously “frame” expectations based upon how the information is presented to them. For instance, would you prefer to invest in a security that has a 40% chance of yielding negative returns or one that has a 60% chance of yielding positive returns? Many people would choose the latter, even though the same investment opportunity was offered in both cases.

Running With the Pack

It’s human nature to want to choose investments that have performed well. On the other hand, many of us are naturally risk-averse. Sometimes these inclinations combine to make us less effective investors. For instance, do you know people who wait to invest until they hear of a security that consistently produces above-average returns? Then, sensing a “safe bet,” they purchase this investment — often when it’s at peak value. If the investment drops in value, they move their money to what they perceive as a less risky security or even pull out of the market altogether — even if such a move clashes with their long-term goals.

This sort of short-term thinking creates risk, too. When investors move in and out of the market, they’re practicing an investment tactic known as market timing. The risk is that they’ll mistime the market and lose out on potential gains. Even professional portfolio managers admit that it can be difficult to predict market moves.

Personal Experiences and Our Portfolios

Research has shown that individuals who grew up during the Great Depression are more likely to invest conservatively, while those who entered the market during the mid-1990s expect high returns and tend to invest more aggressively. Being aware of how past experience may influence your perceptions, can help you avoid financial strategies that may work against you.

So What Can You Do?

Several strategies may help you minimize the role that emotions and psychological tendencies play in your investment decisions. Stay focused on your long-term goals and not the market’s short-term moves. And rather than reviewing your investments’ performance every week, consider scheduling quarterly or semi annual portfolio reviews with a qualified financial professional.

Finally, develop — and stick to — a well thought out plan that’s based on your goals and your personal tolerance for risk. Look for more on these and other strategies that may help you cope with risk in the final installment of this series.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss any other financial planning matters, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch.

Evidence for Time Diversification

One area where many professional advisors disagree with academics is whether stock investments tend to become less risky as you go out in time. Advisors say that the longer you hold stocks, the more the ups and downs tend to cancel each other out, so you end up with a smaller band of outcomes than you get in any one, two or five year period. Academics beg to disagree. They have argued that, just as it is possible to flip a coin and get 20 consecutive “heads” or “tails,” so too can an unlucky investor get a 20-year sequence of returns that crams together a series of difficult years into one unending parade of losses, something like 1917 (-18.62%), 2000 (-9.1%), 1907 (-24.21%), 2008 (-37.22%), 1876 (-14.15%), 1941 (-9.09%), 1974 (-26.95%), 1946 (-12.05%), 2002 (-22.27%), 1931 (-44.20%), 1940 (-8.91%), 1884 (-12.32%), 1920 (-13.95%), 1973 (-15.03%), 1903 (-17.09%), 1966 (-10.36%), 1930 (-22.72%), 2001 (-11.98%), 1893 (-18.79%), and 1957 (-9.30%).

Based purely on U.S. data, the professional advisors seem to be getting the better of the debate, as you can see in the below chart, which shows rolling returns from 1973 through mid-2009.

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The outcomes in any one year have been frighteningly hard to predict, ranging anywhere from a 60% gain to a 40% loss. But if you hold that stock portfolio for three years, the best and worst are less dramatic than the best and worst returns over one year, and the returns are flattening out gradually over 10, 15 and 20 years. No 20-year time period in this study showed a negative annual rate of return.

But this is a fairly limited data set. What happens if you look at other countries and extend this research over longer time periods? This is exactly what David Blanchett at Morningstar, Michael Finke at Texas Tech University and Wade Pfau at the American College did in a new paper, as yet unpublished, which you can find here:
http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2320828.

The authors examined real (inflation-adjusted) historical return patterns for stocks, bonds and cash in 20 industrialized countries, each over a 113-year time period. The sample size thus represents 2,260 return years, and the authors parsed the data by individual time periods and a variety of rolling time periods, which certainly expands the sample size beyond 87 years of U.S. market behavior.

What did they find? Looking at investors with different propensities for risk, they found that in general, people experienced less risk holding more stocks over longer time periods. The only exceptions were short periods of time for investors in Italy and Australia. The effect of time-dampened returns was particularly robust in the United Kingdom, Japan, Denmark, Austria, New Zealand, South Africa and the U.S.

Overall, the authors found that a timid investor with a long-term time horizon should increase his/her equity allocation by about 2.7% for each year of that time horizon, from whatever the optimal allocation would have been for one year. The adventurous investor with low risk aversion should raise equity allocation by 1.3% a year. If that sounds backwards, consider that the timid investor started out with a much lower stock allocation than the dare-devil investor–what the authors call the “intercept” of the Y axis where the slope begins.

Does that mean that returns in the future are guaranteed to follow this pattern? Of course not. But there seems to be some mechanism that brings security prices back to some kind of “normal” long-term return. It could be explained by the fact that investors tend to be more risk-averse when valuations (represented by the P/E ratios) are most attractive (when stocks, in other words, are on sale, but investors are smarting from recent market losses), and most tolerant of risk during the later stages of bull markets (when people are sitting on significant gains). In other words, market sentiment seems to view the future opportunity backwards.

Is it possible that stocks are not really fairly priced at all times, but instead are constantly fluctuating above and below some hard-to-discern “true” or “intrinsic” value, which is rising far more steadily below the waves? That underlying growth would represent the long-term geometric investment return, more or less–or, at least, it might have a relationship with it that is not well-explored. The old saw that stocks eventually return to their real values, that the market, long-term, is a weighing machine, might be valid after all.

If you have any questions about financial or investment planning and management, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.

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