With coronavirus cases rising, unemployment at historic levels, and ongoing protests across America, the strong market rebound feels like it could be driven by irrational hope. Are the markets assuming there is an effective vaccine by the fall? Are they ignoring the effects of a worldwide 100-year pandemic that has killed over 650,000 people as of July 30th?
While there are certainly times when markets can behave irrationally, such times are few and far between and usually concentrated in a certain asset class or sector. At this point, with the exception of the FAANG stocks (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google), we do not see signs that the global equity markets are acting irrationally. It is important to distinguish that this belief does not mean that the market might not experience another significant downturn.
Market prices represent the aggregate predictions of thousands of professional and individual investors regarding the value of the company’s future earnings plus the book value of its assets. The operative words here are prediction and future. The stock markets typically bottom when investors have the most fear and have the bleakest outlook on the future. Historically, bottoms have typically coincided with the point of peak unemployment. A rise in the stock market does not mean that the recession is over or that it might not continue for several more years. It simply means that investors are anticipating a better future down the road.
For example, according to Charles Schwab’s analysis of data from Refinitiv, the market consensus estimates for S&P 500 companies for Q3 2020 is a -23.5% drop from the previous year. That does not seem very optimistic to me. Ned Davis and Charles Schwab recently showed that historically the S&P 500 has performed best when year-over-year earnings growth was between -20% and 5%. It seems very counterintuitive that stocks would be rising when earnings growth is negative, but again, markets are predicting the future, not what is happening at present.
Many of you are probably still wondering or worried about the market going down from here. As the future is uncertain, the answer is, unfortunately, yes, the market could go down from here. But that does not mean you should pull all your money out.
Ironically, your risk of losing money in the markets today is less than it was in January. Markets account for uncertainty by keeping prices below fair value. The difference between true fair value and the market price is the compensation investors receive for taking risk. In times of perceived low uncertainty, market prices are close to fair value and investors get little compensation for taking risk. As the pandemic has taught us, risk is always with us whether we see it coming or not. Currently, because of the high degree of uncertainty, market prices incorporate more downside risk, and investors who stay in the market are getting higher compensation for taking that risk. Taking risk is a necessary part of investing, but as investors, one of the most important things we can do for long-term success is to ensure that we are being appropriately compensated for those risks. Staying in markets when we receive high compensation for taking risk is a key part.
I would love to have a crystal ball that could tell you how the market is going to move tomorrow or next month or next year. It seems very possible that the economic recovery could slow, and the market could go sideways or take another dip. It also seems very possible that through a combination of growing knowledge, human adaptation, and government stimulus, the economic impact will not be as severe as some fear, and the market will continue its steady climb. A wide variety of data suggests that current market valuations are not irrational and that markets are appropriately accounting for the high degree of uncertainty surrounding the trajectory of the economic recovery that will ultimately occur. There are plenty of investors who are pulling money out or who are continuing to sit on the sidelines as well as plenty of buyers. Our recommendation is to continue with your target equity allocation. This approach allows you to benefit from the relatively high compensation you are getting for taking on risk right now while providing sufficient downside protection that your financial well-being is not at risk.
Disclosure: Past performance is no guarantee of future results. No client should assume that future performance of any securities, asset classes, or strategy will be profitable, or equal to the previous described performance. The S&P 500 is a market capitalization-weighted index of 500 widely held stocks often used as a proxy for the U.S stock market.
“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.
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 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 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!
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 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:
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.
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.
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.
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