Tag Archives: confirmation bias

Warning! No Lifeguards On Duty

In a poll administered by the CFA Institute of America {Link}, readers, many of whom are professional investors, were asked which behavioral biases most affect investment decisions. The results are shown in the chart below.

We are not surprised by the results, but we believe a rational investor would put these in reverse order.

Compounding wealth, which should be the primary objective of every investor, depends first and foremost on avoiding large losses. Based on the poll, loss aversion was the lowest ranked bias. Warren Buffett has commented frequently on the importance of limiting losses. His two most important rules are: “Rule #1 of investing is don’t lose money. Rule #2 is never forget rule #1.”

At Real Investment Advice, we have covered a lot of ground on investor behavioral biases. In 5 Mental Traps Investors are Falling In To Right Now, Lance Roberts lucidly points out, “Cognitive biases are a curse to portfolio management as they impair our ability to remain emotionally disconnected from our money. As history all too clearly shows, investors always do the “opposite” of what they should when it comes to investing their own money.”

Lance’s quote nicely sums up the chart above. These same biases driving markets higher today also drove irrational conduct in the late 1920s and the late 1990s. Currently, valuations are at or near levels reached during those two historical market peaks. Current valuations have long since surpassed all other prior valuation peaks.

One major difference between the late 1920s, the late 1990s, and today is the extent to which the Federal Reserve (Fed) is fostering current market conditions and imprudent investor behavior. To what extent have investors fallen into the overconfidence trap as the herd marches onward?

This “ignorance is bliss” type of behavior raises some serious questions, especially in light of the recent changes in Fed policy.

Not QE

As predicted in QE By Any Other Name, the Fed recently surprised investors with a resumption of quantitative easing (QE). The announcement of $60 billion in monthly Treasury bill purchases to replenish depleted excess reserves and another $20 billion to sustain existing balances was made late in the afternoon on Friday October 11. With a formal FOMC meeting scheduled in less than three weeks, the timing and substance of this announcement occurred under unusual circumstances.

The stated purpose of this new round of QE is to address recent liquidity issues in the short-term funding markets. Up to this point, the Fed added additional liquidity through its repo facility. These are actions not taken since the financial crisis a decade ago. The liquidity problems, though not resolved, certainly have largely subsided.

So why the strange off-cycle announcement? In other words, why did the Fed seemingly scramble over the prior few days to announce a resumption of QE now? Why not wait to make this announcement through the normal FOMC meeting statement and press conference process? The answer to those questions tells us more about current circumstances than the actual policy change itself.

The Drowning Man

As is always the case with human beings, actions speak louder than words. If you observe the physical behavior of someone in distress and know what to look for, you learn far more about their circumstance than you would by listening to their words. As an example, the signs of drowning are typically not what we would expect.  A person who is drowning can often appear to be playing in the water. When a person in the water is in distress, their body understands the threat and directs all energy toward staying alive.

People who drown seldom flail and scream for help as is often portrayed on television. If you ask a drowning person if they are okay, you might not receive a response. They are often incapable of producing the energy to speak or scream as all bodily functions are focused on staying afloat.

Since the Financial Crisis, investors, market analysts, and observers are helplessly watching the Fed, a guardian that does not realize the market is drowning. The Fed, the lifeguard of the market, is unaware of the signs of distress and unable to diagnose the problem (see also The Voice of the Market – The Millennial Perspective).

In this case, it is the global banking system that has become so dependent on excess reserves and dollar liquidity that any shortfall, however temporary, causes acute problems. Investor confidence and Fed hubris are blinding many to the source of the turbulence.

Lifeguards

Fortunately, there are a few other “lifeguards” who have not fallen into the behavioral traps that prevent so many investors from properly assessing the situation and potential consequences.

One of the most articulate “lifeguards” on this matter is Jeff Snyder of Alhambra Investments. For years, he has flatly stated that the Fed and their army of PhDs do not understand the global money marketplace. They set domestic policy and expect global participants to adjust to their actions. What is becoming clear is that central bankers, who more than anyone else should understand the nature of money, do not. Therefore, they repeatedly make critical policy errors as a result of hubris and ignorance.

Snyder claims that without an in-depth understanding of the dollar-based global lending market, one cannot grasp the extent to which problems exist and monetary policy is doomed to fail. Like the issues that surfaced around the sub-prime mortgage market in 2007, the funding turmoil that emerged in September was a symptom of that fact. Every “solution” the Fed implements creates another larger problem.

Another “lifeguard” is Daniel Oliver of Myrmikan Capital. In a recently published article entitled QE for the People, Oliver eloquently sums up the Fed’s policy situation this way:

The new QE will take place near the end of a credit cycle, as overcapacity starts to bite and in a relatively steady interest rate environment. Corporate America is already choked with too much debt. As the economy sours, so too will the appetite for more debt. This coming QE, therefore, will go mostly toward government transfer payments to be used for consumption. This is the “QE for the people” for which leftwing economists and politicians have been clamoring. It is “Milton Friedman’s famous ‘helicopter drop’ of money.” The Fed wants inflation and now it’s going to get it, good and hard.”

We added the emphasis in the quote because we believe that to be a critically important point of consideration. Inflation is the one thing no one is looking for or even considering a possibility.

Summary

Today, similar to the months leading up to the Financial Crisis, irrational behavioral biases are the mindset of the market. As such, there are very few “lifeguards” that know what to look for in terms of distress. Those who do however, are sounding the alarm. Thus far warnings go largely unheeded because blind confidence in the Fed and profits from yesteryear are blinding investors. Similar to the analogy James Grant uses, where he refers to the Fed as an arsonist not a firefighter, here the Fed is not the lifeguard on duty but the invisible undertow.

Investors should frequently evaluate a list of cognitive biases and be aware of their weaknesses. Humility will be an enormous asset as this economic and market expansion ends and the inevitable correction takes shape.  We have attached links to our other behavioral investing articles as they may be helpful in that difficult task of self-evaluation.

Finally, we must ask what asset can be a life preserver that is neither being chased higher by the herd nor providing any confirmation bias.

Gold is currently one of the most hated investments by the media and social media influencers. The only herd following gold are thought to be relics of ancient history and doomsday preppers. Maybe, as we saw in the aftermath of the prior valuation peaks, those who were ridiculed for their rigor and discipline will once again come out on top.

Gold provides ballast to a portfolio during troubling times and should definitely be considered today as the distress becomes more pronounced and obvious.

Please find below links to some of our favorite behavioral investing articles:  

Dalbar 2017: Investors Suck at Investing and Tips for Advisors

8 Reasons to Hold Some Extra Cash

The 5-Laws Of Human Stupidity & How To Be A “Non-Stupid” Investor

The Money Game & the Human Brain

The Definitive Guide to Investing for the Long Run

The 5-Mental Traps Investors Are Falling Into Right Now

I recently wrote about the “F.I.R.E.” movement and how it is a byproduct of late-stage bull market cycle. It isn’t just the “can’t lose” ideas which are symptomatic of bullish cycles, but also the actual activities of investors as well. Not surprisingly, the deviation of growth over value has become one of the largest in history.

This divergence of the “performance chase” should be a reminder of Benjamin Graham’s immortal warning:

“The investor’s chief problem, and even his worst enemy, is likely to be himself.” 

With valuations elevated, prices at record highs, and the current bull market the longest in U.S. history, it seems like a good time to review the 5-most dangerous psychological biases of investing.

The 5-Most Dangerous Biases

Every year Dalbar releases their annual “Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior” study which continues to show just how poorly investors perform relative to market benchmarks over time. More importantly, they discuss many of the reasons for that underperformance which are all directly attributable to your brain. 

From Dalbar’s 2018 study:

“In 2018 the average investor underperformed the S&P 500 in both good times and bad, lagging behind the S&P by more than 100 basis points in two different months.”

Cognitive biases are a curse to portfolio management as they impair our ability to remain emotionally disconnected from our money. As history all too clearly shows, investors always do the “opposite” of what they should when it comes to investing their own money.

Here are the top-5 of the most insidious biases investors are falling into RIGHT NOW!

1) Confirmation Bias

As individuals, we tend to seek out information that conforms to our current beliefs. If one believes that the stock market is going to rise, they tend only to seek out news and information that supports that position. This confirmation bias is a primary driver of the psychological investing cycle of individuals as shown below. I discussed this just recently in why “Media Headlines Will Lead You To Ruin.”

As individuals, we want “affirmation” our current thought processes are correct. As human beings, we hate to be told we are wrong, so we tend to seek out sources which tell us we are “right.”

Currently, individual investors are “fully” back in the market despite a fairly decent bruising in 2018. Historically, this has not turned out well for individuals, but given that “optimism sells,” it is not surprising to see the majority of the mainstream meeting touting a continuation of the bull market.

This is why it is always important to consider both sides of every debate equally and analyze the data accordingly. Being right and making money are not mutually exclusive.

2) Gambler’s Fallacy

The “Gambler’s Fallacy” is one of the bigger issues faced by individuals when investing. As emotionally driven human beings, we tend to put a tremendous amount of weight on previous events believing that future outcomes will somehow be the same.

The bias is clearly addressed at the bottom of every piece of financial literature.

“Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

However, despite that statement being plastered everywhere in the financial universe, individuals consistently dismiss the warning and focus on past returns expecting similar results in the future.

This is one of the key issues that affect an investor’s long-term returns. Performance chasing has a high propensity to fail, continually causing investors to jump from one late cycle strategy to the next. This is shown in the periodic table of returns below. “Hot hands” only tend to last on average 2-3 years before going “cold.” 

I traced out the returns of large capitalization stocks (S&P 500) and U.S. Fixed Income (Barclay’s Aggregate Bond Index) for illustrative purposes. Importantly, you should notice that whatever is at the top of the list in some years tends to fall to the bottom in subsequent years. “Performance chasing” is a major detraction from investor’s long-term investment returns.

So, what’s hot in 2019, we detail this each week for our RIAPRO subscribers (30-day FREE TRIAL)

Currently, money is chasing Technology, Discretionary, and Communications, with Energy, Healthcare, and Bonds lagging. From a contrarian viewpoint, with “Value” dramatically underperforming “Growth” at this juncture of the investment cycle, there may be a generational opportunity soon approaching.

3) Probability Neglect

When it comes to “risk-taking” there are two ways to assess the potential outcome. There are “possibilities” and “probabilities.” As individuals, we tend to lean toward what is possible such as playing the “lottery.” 

The statistical probabilities of winning the lottery are astronomical. In fact, you are more likely to die on the way to purchase the ticket than actually winning the lottery. However, it is the “possibility” of instant wealth that makes the lottery such a successful “tax on poor people.”

As humans, we tend to neglect the “probabilities,” or rather the statistical measures of “risk,” undertaken with any given investment, in exchange for the “possibility” of gaining wealth. Our bias is to “chase” stocks, or markets, which already have large gains as it is “possible” they could move higher. However, the “probability” is that a corrective action will likely occur first.

With markets currently well deviated above long-term historical means, and valuations elevated, the possibility is greatly outweighed by the probability of a mean-reverting event first.  The following chart is derived from Dr. Robert Shiller’s inflation-adjusted price data and is plotted on a QUARTERLY basis. From that quarterly data is calculated:

  • The 12-period (3-year) Relative Strength Index (RSI),
  • Bollinger Bands (2 and 3 standard deviations of the 3-year average),
  • CAPE Ratio, and;
  • The percentage deviation above and below the 3-year moving average. 
  • The vertical RED lines denote points where all measures have aligned

Over the next several weeks, or even months, the markets could certainly extend the current deviations from long-term mean even further drive by the psychology of the “herd.” But such is the nature of every bull market peak, and bubble, throughout history as the seeming impervious advance lures the last of the stock market “holdouts” back into the markets.

Probability neglect is another major component to why investors consistently “buy high and sell low.”

4) Herd Bias

Though we are often unconscious of the action, humans tend to “go with the crowd.” Much of this behavior relates back to “confirmation” of our decisions, but also the need for acceptance. The thought process is rooted in the belief that if “everyone else” is doing something, then if I want to be accepted, I need to do it too.

“If all your friends jump off a cliff, are you going to do it too?” – said by every Mother in history.

In life, “conforming” to the norm is socially accepted and in many ways expected. However, in the financial markets the “herding” behavior is what drives market excesses during advances and declines.

As noted above, the “momentum chase” currently is good example of “herding” behavior. As Michael Lebowitz noted recently:

“The graph below charts ten year annualized total returns (dividends included) for value stocks versus growth stocks. The most recent data indicates value stocks have underperformed growth stocks by 2.86% on average in each of the last ten years.”

“There have only been eight ten-year periods over the last 90 years (total of 90 ten-year periods) when value stocks underperformed growth stocks. Two of these occurred during the Great Depression and one spanned the 1990s leading into the Tech bust of 2001. The other five are recent, representing the years 2014 through 2018.

When the cycle turns, we have little doubt the value-growth relationship will revert. In such a case value would outperform growth by nearly 30% in just two years. Anything beyond the average would increase the outperformance even more.”

Moving against the “herd” is where investors have generated the most profits over the long term. The difficulty for most individuals, unfortunately, is knowing when to “bet” against the stampede.

5) Recency Bias

Recency bias occurs when people more prominently recall, and extrapolate, recent events and believe that the same will continue indefinitely into the future. This phenomenon frequently occurs in with investing. Humans have short memories in general, but memories are especially short when it comes to investing cycles.

As Morningstar once penned:

“During a bull market, people tend to forget about bear markets. As far as human recent memory is concerned, the market should keep going up since it has been going up recently. Investors therefore keep buying stocks, feeling good about their prospects. Investors thereby increase risk taking and may not think about diversification or portfolio management prudence. Then a bear market hits, and rather than be prepared for it with shock absorbers in their portfolios, investors instead suffer a massive drop in their net worths and may sell out of stocks when the market is low. Selling low is, of course, not a good long-term investing strategy.”

This bias in action looks a lot like the chart below.

During bull markets, investors believe that markets can only go up – so “buy the dip” becomes a “can’t lose” investment strategy.  This bias also works in reverse during bear markets. Investors become convinced the market will only go lower which eventually leads them to “panic selling” the lows.

Recency bias is the primary driver behind the “Buy High/Sell Low” syndrome.

Everyone’s A Genius

The last point brings me to something Michael Sincere once penned:

“At market tops, it is common to see what I call the ‘high-five effect’ — that is, investors giving high-fives to each other because they are making so much paper money. It is happening now. I am also suspicious when amateurs come out of the woodwork to insult other investors.”

Michael’s point is very apropos, particularly today, it’s currently “high-fives and pats on the back.” 

The market’s ability to seemingly recover from every setback, and to ignore fundamental issues, has led investors to feel “bulletproof” as investment success breeds overconfidence.

The reality is that strongly rising asset prices, particularly when driven by emotional exuberance, “hides” investment mistakes in the short term. Poor, or deteriorating, fundamentals, excessive valuations, and/or rising credit risk is often ignored as prices increase. Unfortunately, it is only after the damage is done the realization of those “risks” occurs.

For investors, it is crucially important to understand that markets run in full cycles (up and down). While the bullish “up” cycle lasts twice as long as the bearish “down” cycle, the majority of the previous gains are repeatedly destroyed.

The damage to investors is not a result of lagging markets as they rise, but in capturing the inevitable reversion. This is something I discussed in “Bulls And Bears Are Both Broken Clocks:”

“In the end, it does not matter IF you are ‘bullish’ or ‘bearish.’  The reality is that both ‘bulls’ and ‘bears’ are owned by the ‘broken clock’ syndrome during the full-market cycle. However, what is grossly important in achieving long-term investment success is not necessarily being ‘right’ during the first half of the cycle, but by not being ‘wrong’ during the second half.

We are only human, and despite the best of our intentions, it is nearly impossible for an individual to be devoid of the emotional biases which inevitably leads to poor decision making over time. This is why all great investors have strict investment disciplines they follow to reduce the impact of their emotions.

At market peaks – everyone’s a “Genius.”Save

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