Friday, June 19, 2009

Why Investors Do What They Do: Anchoring

So far, we have discussed loss aversion and narrow framing, trouble spots in any investors view of what they are trying to do. They may be investing in their retirement plan or simply making an economic (better yet, one with financial implications) decisions, but we often, as studies have shown, begin from some point of what we know. This is referred to as anchoring.

Unfortunately, anchoring is a bias. It is often included among other similar cognitive biases such as memory bias (which effects how we recall a situation after the fact) and confirmation bias (depends largely of what you already know and uses this information to skew your perception of what really is). Each alters what we see with something we already know and this drives businesses, who want to anticipate what you will do and more importantly, what you will buy and confounds psychologists, who have twisted the lab questions done on test subjects in every conceivable way only to find out that we have numerous cognitive influences mucking up the works.

But anchoring is particularly dangerous when it comes to investor reaction. An anchor is basically an expectation. We are not the kind of shoppers who go into a store, find a good and before we flip the price tag, try and determine what we will pay for it. But it is a good experiment that you can conduct on yourself. Time after time, you will find your expectations of the cost of the good, be it a television or a dress will be altered by what you perceive.

You will try and narrow down your choices to one that seems to be what you think something is worth. But that narrowing of thought, trying to get closer to the price tag (and feeling very smug if your bias towards the cost is exactly what the cost is) will not work across a broad spectrum of goods. In lab tests, subjects merely get "a good" and know little about what it is. But as soon as the item is revealed, adjustments are automatically made.

We generally have no real anchor when we begin investing except for the money we begin the process with. This becomes the anchor if you have nothing in the account. But in a upwardly moving market, an investor can quickly get swept up in a constantly readjusting balance. Once money is made, a new anchor is created in your view of that portfolio.

Investing however is never quite that simple. While we all enjoy growth, we tend to lose focus on the fickleness of the markets and the underlying worth of whatever it is we are buying. If a stock or a mutual fund has had a great run of it, even topping the top ten lists, investors will not see this as the top but the new value on which to anchor their expectations.

Consider what cognitive abilities (or biases) you may have used or borrowed from someone else. You watch the business news channels hoping for a tidbit of relevant information about which security you would like to buy. You peruse the web looking for confirmation of what you would like to believe is true. But what you are really doing is looking for an anchor using someone else's anchor to support your decision.

If analysts make forecasts or predictions based on past performance and then offer the disclaimer that future results are not guaranteed. They have used past results to anchor their bias as to whether things look rosy or the future is bleak for the stock.

Anchoring is tougher on a retirement account largely due to the set and go approach that most investors use in these types of accounts. Unless severe market downturns capture our attention in the news, we tend to leave these accounts to their own devices, channeling a portion of our earnings into them each week.

But when we do look at those quarterly statements, and many of us have for the first time in a while, we have an idea of where we should be. And it will be much higher than is probably reported. That's because we aren't so good at making predictions or estimates.

Look at it this way. Suppose you invested a thousand dollars in an IRA account and added $100 a week to that account. Over the course of 25 years you would have put $114,429 (adjusted for inflation at 3% on the real value of $131,000 actually contributed) in the account. If the money grew over that period at a modest 5%, which for that stretch of time is below average even with last year calculated into the mix, you would have added almost $135,000 in earnings (also adjusted for inflation).

Now suppose your portfolio balance of $249,402 dropped 30% or $74,802. Wouldn't you still be in the black? With an inflation adjusted contribution of $114k, haven't you protected your money and even grew it by $40k. Because you constantly shift your anchor or readjust your estimates higher, your expectations follow.

This is due in large part to a small target. Your balance may have grown substantially since you began investing but what occurred caused you to miss the target. I am not a shooter but I know that when a person does aim and fire, they are often narrowly focused on the target when in fact we should be making broad sight adjustments.

Next up: Mental Accounting

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