Thursday, June 11, 2009

Why Investors Do What They Do

A recent report done by Dalbar, inc. of Boston suggests that investors often do things that hurt what they are attempting to do in numerous ways. Using information aggregated from the Investment Company Institute (, a company that tracks and support the mutual fund industry), The Standard and Poors Company (the standard bearer of indexes) and Barclays (which publishes an index of bonds), the company has found that there are numerous influences, both external and internal, that have an effect on how well a portfolio of mutual funds (or stocks for that matter) perform over the short-term and long-term.

They identify nine areas where investors thought they were right, when they were in fact, ignoring signals that the approach they were taking may have led to, even exacerbated losses rather than gains. The report cites these facts from the study to support these claims:

* For the 20 years ended December 31, 2008, equity, fixed income and asset allocation fund investors had average annual returns of 1.87%, 0.77% and 1.67%, respectively. The inflation rate averaged 2.89% over that same time period.
* Equity fund investors lost 41.6% last year, compared with 37.7% for the S&P 500 Index.
* Bond fund investors lost 11.7% last year, versus a gain of 5.2% for the Barclays Aggregate Bond Index. This disparity is largely due to the underperformance of managed bond funds caused by mortgage-backed securities.
* With an annual loss of 30% last year, asset allocation fund investors fared better than equity fund investors.

The first of these nine areas, which we will examine over the next nine posts, deals with loss aversion. Falling squarely into the realm of behavioral finance, numerous academics have sought to model a realistic estimate of how investors react in certain circumstances, whether those reactions were realistic given those circumstances and how financial decisions are evaluated and eventually made.

While risk and uncertainty have their place in the investment world, how people react under those conditions was the subject of a paper done by noted psychologists Kahneman and Tversky titled the Prospect Theory. They realized that "since loses loom larger than gains, it appears that humans follow conservative strategies when presented with a positively framed dilemma, and risky strategies when presented with negatively-framed ones." They also noted that numerous influences enter into the equation including normal behavior, habits the investor might already have and the personal characteristics of the decision maker.

How you frame the argument (in an investor's mind), even if it is the same problem, directly affects how the investor reacts. Frame it negatively, and the reaction often leads to risk taking; frame it positively and the investor will chose a risk averse solution.

The battle between what "would happen" if a decision is reached is often overshadowed by the repeated decision making based on what has already occurred. Economists refer to this as a continuous process suggesting that an investor might become overconfident and that generates irrationality.

Martin J. Pring once said, "For most of us, the task of beating the market is not difficult, it is the job of beating ourselves that proves to be overwhelming." According to a Stanford University Business School paper published in July of 2006, "the principle of loss aversion is not derived from any theory of behavior or more basic psychological principles, but is an ad hoc principle introduced to account for a range of phenomena involving tradeoffs between losses and gains." In other words, most investors seek the status quo.

And to change the status quo, investors need a motive. What happens if those motives are fuzzy or ill-defined? The paper, written by David Gal cited an experiment done by Kivetz and Simonson which "offered diners a reward program in which they could receive a free meal at a dining hall after having paid for a certain number of meals. In a between subject design, they found that sushi lovers would actually prefer a reward program which required the purchase of 10 sandwiches and 10 sushi platters to a program which required only the purchase of the 10 sandwiches. Although the former option was dominated by the latter, sushi lovers perceived a relative advantage in that they would likely have eaten the sushi anyway. Based on this relative advantage, sushi lovers inferred that they were getting a "bargain" in an absolute sense."

When information is fuzzy though, it is difficult to determine what the status quo actually is. If you were offered a 50% chance of losing $100 or a 50% chance of winning a $100, the trade-off might seem relatively straightforward. The better bet is to not take the bet at all. What is needed although is a clear preference of what the status quo is.

Loss Aversion does exist but it is difficult to define and hard to expect. Studies have shown that historical data (past performance indicators) often lead us to make these decisions and yet, that same historical data may have little to do with what we may gain, or lose.

Next up: Narrow Framing of Investment Decisions

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