Psychology of Investing

Psychology of Investing

 

 

“The world makes much less sense than you think. The coherence comes mostly from the way your mind works.”
– Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

“It’s not supposed to be easy. Anyone who finds it easy is stupid.”
– Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway

 

In its most basic form, investing involves allocating money with the expectation of some benefit, or return, in the future that compensates us for the risk taken by investing in the first place. Investing is a decision: buy or sell, stock A or stock B, equities or bonds, invest now or later. But as the great Charlie Munger reminds us above, investing is far from easy. Prior to making an investment decision, we create statistical models, build spreadsheets, use fundamental and technical analysis, gather economic data, and analyze company financial statements. We compile historical information to project future return and risk measures. But no matter how much information we gather or the complexity of our investment process, there isn’t one rule that works all the time. Investing involves so much more than models and spreadsheets. It is an art rather than a science that involves humans interacting with each other—for every buyer, there is a seller. At its core, investing is a study of how we behave.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are famous for their work on human behavior, particularly around judgment and decision making. Judgment is about estimating and thinking in probabilities. Decision making is about how we make choices under uncertainty (which is most of the time). Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for their work in 2002, an honor that would have certainly been shared with Tversky had he not passed away in 1996. Their findings challenged the basic premise under modern economic theory that human beings are rational when making judgments and decisions. Instead, they established that human errors are common, predictable, and typically arise from cognitive and emotional biases based on how our brains are designed.

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes our brains as having two different, though interconnected, systems. System 1 is emotional and instinctive. It lies in the brain’s amygdala and uses heuristics or “rules of thumb” to simplify information and allow for quick gut decisions. In contrast, System 2 is associated with the brain’s prefrontal cortex. It is slow, deliberate, and calculating. As an example, if I write “2 + 2 =”, your mind without any effort will come up with the answer. That is System 1 at work. If I write “23 x 41=”, your mind most likely switches over to the slower moving System 2. While Systems 1 and 2 are essential to our survival as humans, Kahneman found that both systems, and how they interact with each other, can often lead to poor (and sometimes irrational) decisions. We can apply much of what Kahneman and Tversky discovered to investor behavior. Let’s focus on some of the most common biases and how they impact our decision making.

Loss Aversion

Kahneman and Tversky summarized loss aversion bias with the expression “losses loom larger than gains.” The key idea behind loss aversion is that humans react differently to gains and losses. Through various studies and experiments, Kahneman and Tversky concluded that the pain we experience from investing losses is twice as powerful as the pleasure we get from an equivalent gain. This can lead to several mistakes, such as selling winners too early for a small profit or selling during severe market downturns to avoid further losses. Loss aversion, if left unchecked, can lead to impulse decision making driven by the emotions of System 1.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias leads people to validate incoming information that supports their preexisting beliefs and reject or ignore any contradictory information. In other words, it is seeing what you want to see and hearing what you want to hear. As investors, we are prone to spending more time looking for information that confirms our investment idea or philosophy. This can lead to holding on to poor investments when there is clear contradictory information available.

Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias is very common with investor behavior. We convince ourselves that we made an accurate investment decision in the past which led to excellent future results. This can lead to overconfidence that our investment philosophy or process works all the time. On the flip side, hindsight can lead to regret if we missed an opportunity. Why didn’t I buy Amazon in 2001? Why didn’t I sell before this bear market? As I always say, I would put the results of my “Hindsight Portfolio” up against Warren Buffet’s any day!

Overconfidence

As mentioned above, investors can become overconfident if they have some success. This can lead to ignoring data or models because we think we know better. As Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Overconfidence can lead to a knockout, and investors must be flexible and open with their process.

Recency Bias

Recency bias is when investors emphasize or give too much weight to recent events when making decisions and give less weight to the past. This causes short-term thinking and allows us to lose focus on our long-term investment plan. It essentially explains why investors tend to be more confident during bull markets and fearful during bear markets.

 

I could write an entire book on investor psychology. The bottom line is that we cannot eliminate these biases. After all, we are all human. Even Kahneman, who made the study of human behavior his life work, admits he is constantly impacted by his own biases. However, there are certain actions or “nudges” that can help address such biases and avoid making costly mistakes. At Merriman, we have built the firm in such a way to use our knowledge about human behavior in the work we perform for our clients. Below are some of the main examples:

Evidence-Based

We build and design our investment strategies based on academic data going back hundreds of years. We are evidence-based rather than emotionally-driven investors. We think long term and do not let short term noise or recent events impact the process. We build globally diversified portfolios across different asset classes to produce the best risk-adjusted returns. That said, we are consistently researching and studying to find data that might contradict our investment philosophy and will make changes if the evidence supports it.

Financial Planning

A well-built financial plan is at the core of our client’s long-term success. It is a living document that requires frequent updates based on changes in our lives—retirement, education funding, taxes, change in job, business sale, and estate planning. This forces us to make investment decisions based on the relevant factors of that plan and not on emotions—because at the end of the day, investing is meant to help reach our goals.

Education

At Merriman, we do our best to help educate our clients on our investment philosophy. Blogs, quarterly letters, seminars, client events, and video content are all examples of tools we use to educate our firm and clients. Knowledge and awareness are powerful tools to help us make sound decisions.

 

We are all going through an extremely stressful situation right now—both personally and professionally. Now, more than ever, we need to lean on each other and show empathy and support through this unprecedented time. Remember, investing is a study of how humans behave. At Merriman, we want to be your resource to guide you through both calm and turbulent markets, helping you reach your financial goals. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you’d like to discuss how we can help.

 

 

A New Resource for Amazon Employees

A New Resource for Amazon Employees

Do you work for Amazon, or are you considering a career at Amazon?


Navigating the different benefit options can feel overwhelming. That’s why Merriman has created a new resource for Amazonians that has everything you need to know about what’s available to you.

You can find tips and advice on how to get the most out of Amazon’s 401(k), learn about health insurance options and guidance on how to handle the Amazon restricted stock units. We encourage you to take a look and if you have any questions or if you want to discuss in detail how Merriman can help put together a personalized plan, please feel free to reach out.

Traditional or Roth 401(k)?

Traditional or Roth 401(k)?

Often employers offer the option of contributing to a traditional 401(k) or a Roth 401(k). Do you know which one is right for you?

The primary difference is in the tax treatment. The traditional 401(k) gets a tax benefit at the time of contribution, because money contributed to such an account is not taxed. Moving forward, the earnings in your traditional 401(k) are not taxed as long as the funds remain in the account. When you begin to make withdrawals in retirement, the funds withdrawn are taxed as ordinary income.

Roth 401(k)s are taxed the reverse way. In these accounts, money is taxed when the contribution is made. Earnings on investments in your Roth 401(k) account are not subject to tax, and the money is not taxed when it’s withdrawn.

If the investor’s marginal tax rate is the same at the time of contributions and withdrawals, the traditional and Roth accounts would produce the same results.

Because of these differences in tax treatment, taxpayers in the lowest tax brackets should contribute to Roth accounts, while taxpayers in higher tax brackets will want to use traditional retirement accounts. As a general strategy:

When you’re in the 12% tax rate or lower: Contributions should be made to a Roth 401(k).

When you start moving into the 22% tax bracket: 50% of contributions be made to a traditional 401(k), and 50% to a Roth 401(k).

In your peak earning years: As you move into years with marginal tax rates above 22%, most or all retirement contributions should be made into a traditional 401(k) instead of the Roth.

If you’re still not sure which option is right for you, we’re happy to help.

How Required Minimum Distributions Work!

How Required Minimum Distributions Work!

When you reach age 70½, or you inherit a retirement account you plan on stretching the life of, you’re legally required to take an annual withdrawal called a required minimum distribution (RMD) from your retirement account. Failure to take your RMD results in a 50% penalty on the RMD. Below is a list of frequently asked questions regarding required minimum distributions.

When do I have to take my first RMD?

You must take your first required minimum distribution by April 1 of the year after you turn 70½. For example, if you turn 70½ on December 15, 2017, you need to take your first RMD by April 1, 2018. Keep in mind that if you wait until 2018 to take your first RMD in this example, you would have to take two RMDs that year. Since two RMDs in one year could push you up into a higher tax bracket, it’s advisable to take your first RMD by December 31 of the year you turn 70½.

What accounts do I have to take an RMD from?

RMDs apply to pre-tax retirement accounts such as Traditional IRA, Rollover IRA, SEP IRA, Simple IRA, 403(b), 457, and 401(k)s. RMDs do not apply to Roth IRAs.

Current law does require RMDs be taken from Roth 401(k)s, but you can easily avoid this by rolling that account into a Roth IRA. (more…)

How Are Oil Prices Impacting Your Portfolio?

oil price volatility

As consumers, we love low oil prices for the savings we receive at the pump. As investors in energy companies, we love high oil prices for the earnings and dividends.

Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen oil prices fall precipitously from around $100 per barrel to below $40 per barrel as of year-end. Similarly, big oil players such as ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP have seen declines in their stock prices of 23%, 31%, and 41%, respectively. Is this a value investment opportunity? Could be. Can oil prices fall further? Possibly. However, why worry or attempt to time or choose specific sectors of the stock market to invest in like energy, technology or healthcare? Just like other market events, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to consistently predict drops like we’ve seen in oil, and to determine how long prices will stay this low.

Instead, let’s consider how the prolonged drop in oil prices and the corresponding decline in energy stocks play into the overall stock market indices. For the MSCI All Country World Index (ACWI), the energy component makes up just 6.1% of the overall index. Over that same 18-month period, the global energy sector fell in price by 43%, while the overall MSCI ACWI declined by just 7%. If you owned only a market index, which would remove company- and industry-specific risk from your portfolio, the decline would have been dampened. In fact, when oil prices drop, consumers use those savings from the gas pump to buy products and services that boost other parts of the economy. In addition, industries whose costs are heavily impacted by oil prices, such as airlines and transports, greatly benefit from this shift. This leveling effect provided by investing in various indices can more importantly help keep you from falling off course from reaching your financial goals.

As a result, we continue to believe in the long-term benefits of broad-based diversification provided by investing in indices across the globe.

Should Your Home Be Considered in Your Asset Allocation?

An investment portfolio is typically described as a basket of stocks and bonds invested across the global markets. These securities usually have sufficient liquidity where they could be sold in a relatively short period of time to receive your money. Real Estate AssetWhile not all investments fit this description perfectly, most investors’ portfolios reflect these characteristics, whether that portfolio is invested through an assortment of mutual funds, exchange traded funds or individual securities. In return for capital, the investor hopes to earn capital gains, dividends and interest on a regular basis. By that definition, should real estate holdings be considered as part of your investment portfolio?

Your personal residence has different characteristics. First off, it provides shelter, so it can be considered a necessity. Homes can take anywhere from a few weeks, months or even years to sell, so it wouldn’t be considered a liquid asset that can be sold readily. Also, a home is located in a particular neighborhood, city, state, region and country, so it’s exposed to location-specific risks. You don’t receive dividends and interest annually from owning your home. In fact, you spend money on maintenance, mortgage payments, property taxes and insurance. You can, however, generate capital gains, but that occurs only if your home is sold for a gain. Often, sellers turn around and use the proceeds to purchase a new residence.

From the description above, an investor’s personal residence lacks marketability and diversification, and it requires additional inputs of capital to maintain. Equity real estate investment trusts (REITs), on the other hand, are investable assets and provide exposure to commercial, agricultural, industrial and residential real estate across the country and most parts of the world. Families who own their homes may also own a few rental homes, but most don’t have expertise and resources to own commercial, industrial and agricultural real estate. Exchange traded funds and mutual funds can track equity REIT indices (i.e., FTSE NAREIT) and provide a low-cost, inflation fighting, diversified option with daily liquidity and low investment minimums.

Similar to the reasons for including other asset classes in an investment portfolio, such as emerging markets equity or reinsurance, exposure to real estate through equity REITs adds incremental value to the portfolio. This is because equity REITs are fundamentally different from other asset classes due to differences in taxation, correlation and inflation-fighting characteristics. As a result, we believe equity REITs are better suited than a residence for a well-balanced, diversified portfolio.