behavioral economics

You Are Somebody, Not Everybody

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Our pursuit of effective strategies for successful investing covers a wide range of disciplines. Economics and mathematics are obviously needed, but history and psychology play surprisingly large roles.

As contrarian investors, avoiding stampedes is a fundamental principle for us. We often find ourselves going against the crowd. It turns out that there is a lot of conventional wisdom with which we disagree.

The world is complex; humans use shortcuts all the time to keep things simple enough to handle. The problem arises when characteristics of a group are ascribed to each individual within the group, as a shortcut way of dealing with people.

For example, Americans on average are sedentary and overweight. But if you watch who enters the door of the YMCA at 6 A.M., you know that the group characteristics do not apply to every individual. We use this same principle to find clients who will not sell out at low points or fall for the latest overpriced fad.

Behavioral economics indicates that humans tend to behave in counterproductive ways when it comes to investing. But just as the “Y” does not treat each member as if they were overweight and sedentary, we know that counterproductive behavior is optional at the individual level. We choose to try to avoid it.

We were reminded of this recently in reviewing some studies about happiness. The studies show that people quickly take new things for granted, homes and cars for example, so the initial happiness soon wears off. But in our experience, this is a matter of choice.

When in Louisville, I live in the humblest quarters ever since I graduated from college. I am grateful to have an abode that meets my modest needs. In Florida, my days are spent in a nice home that is wonderfully suited to our family. My gratitude and appreciation and happiness about that never flags. This just puts me right in the middle of the pack of the greatest clients in the world. (Our opinion.)

When we read studies about behavior, we will always remember that you are somebody, not everybody. Economists and psychologists can prove all they want about human tendencies, but we will not accept their findings as your fate or ours.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

Why Not Both?

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We keep reading a curious idea promoted by some in the financial industry. It goes like this: “Managing investor behavior is the key task for advisors, not managing investments.”

That framework assumes there is a choice between one or the other. There are two flaws in the assumption. It does not have to be an either-or deal. And some fraction of people don’t require babysitters for their natural investment behavior, which is effective.

We believe in BOTH of these roles. It may be true that raw human nature is generally counterproductive to sound investing. (Behavioral economists tend to think so.) Our theory and experience says that the attitudes and behavior of individuals can be deliberately shaped to their benefit—and ours.

What may apply as a general principle to all people does not necessarily apply to you as an individual. You have free will. And we believe people can learn.

So we spend a great deal of time and effort talking to you, and communicating about the mindsets and strategies and tactics we believe are effective. But that is only part of the job.

Legendary investor Charlie Munger said, “We wouldn’t be so rich if other people weren’t wrong so often.” By avoiding stampedes in the market, we may sidestep a poor situation that others are getting into. And by seeking the best bargains, we are looking for holdings that others may be wrong about.

In other words, two of our fundamental principles about investment management are founded in a belief that investment selection matters because people are often wrong. We see investor behavior as a creator of opportunities for our clients—not a problem to be managed. Clients, we keep saying you are special: this is why. We believe your investment behavior is exemplary.

Knowing what you own and why you own it, operating in accordance with sound principles and strategy, makes it easier to behave effectively. These things reinforce each other.

Manage behavior, or manage investments? It isn’t either-or—we need to pay attention to both. Clients, if you would like to discuss this at greater length, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

YOU Haven’t Missed Out

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The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted “one of the biggest surprises of the US stock market’s relentless rally…how many individual investors have run away from it.” This is from the January 4, 2018 article “Individual Investors Sit it Out.”

The article cites industry sources about where people have been putting their money the last several years. While nearly $1 trillion got pulled out of investment products that target US stocks since 2012, almost the same amount has gone into bond investment products.

Clients, would you trade your results over the past three or five or seven years for bonds with low potential interest and growth?

Our fundamental rules have guided us. Avoid stampedes—and the stampede into the supposed safety of bonds may be one of the biggest in history. Seek the best bargains—interest rates near the lowest levels in four decades1 hardly seemed like a bargain to us.

A strong contrarian streak encourages us to think about doing the opposite of what everybody else seems to be doing. We’ve been buying stocks when others were selling.

We’re focused now on getting the next big thing right. If we seek to avoid stampedes, we need to be careful if the stampede joins us. What we now own may become too popular and get over-priced. A 30% or 40% gain from current levels might put us in risky territory.

By continuously seeking better bargains in other sectors and trimming back holdings that are no longer cheap, we seek to reduce the potential for loss. No guarantees, of course: the next poor year is out there somewhere.

On investment advisory accounts managed through LPL Financial, our revenues are a function of your account value. When you capture an opportunity or avoid a loss, we are better off. This focuses our attention wonderfully.

Clients, if you would like to discuss how this applies to your circumstances, please email us or call.

1Interest rate data from Federal Reserve Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/FEDFUNDS (as of January 2018.)


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

All investing, including stocks, involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Because of their narrow focus, sector investing will be subject to greater volatility than investing more broadly across many sectors and companies.

Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.

The 61% Syndrome

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A few weeks ago we studied a report from a large institution. It stated that 61% of baby boomers preferred minimizing taxes to getting higher investment returns1. We wrote about this being a false choice: the rational object is to achieve the highest after-tax returns, thereby incorporating both goals sensibly.

But there is another problem with the 61% syndrome. There is a tendency for 100% of the attention to get focused on the 61%. It seems that the number is eventually forgotten. The formula is simplified to “The top priority of baby boomers is minimizing taxes.”

In other contexts, ugly words are used to describe the process of attributing perceived characteristics of a group to each individual in the group. Stereotyping and bigotry are costly to society to the extent that they hinder any of us from unlocking the highest fraction of our own potential, the secret sauce of American prosperity.

The forgotten 39% of baby boomers is 29 million people2. That is a lot of people to ignore.

We hear again and again that investors repeatedly do the wrong thing. But we don’t care whether most investors behave rationally; we just need you to do so. (In fact, when others behave foolishly that can create opportunities for us.)

It seems sort of insulting to start a relationship by attempting to prove to people that they will do stupid things and are incapable of learning. But when you attribute a perceived characteristic to every member of a group, you fail them in some way.

You may be familiar with Thoreau’s formulation: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer…” Many of you have seen the hand-lettered illuminated version of it hanging on my office wall. We are all about people as individuals, not stereotypes.

(Did you know my girlfriend lettered that saying and gave it to me when we were both seventeen? This has been fundamental for as long as I can remember. Extra credit question: what was the girl’s name?)

My unique story gives me respect for you and your unique story. It is how we aim to avoid the 61% syndrome and its related costs and lost opportunities. Clients, if you have questions about this or any other topic, please email us or call.

12016 U.S. Trust Insights on Wealth and Worth survey, U.S. Trust Bank of America Private Wealth Management

2Federal Reserve Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

This information is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax advice. We suggest that you discuss your specific tax issues with a qualified tax advisor.

Fishing Lures Are Made to Catch Fishermen

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Archeologists say the oldest known fishhooks date back 23,000 years. They have no idea when one person first sold another one a fishing lure. But ever since then, it has been a truth that fishing lures are designed to catch fishermen, not fish. A useful corollary is lurking just beneath the surface.

Recently the Wall Street Journal wrote about a narrow investment sector that was getting flooded with money by investors starved for yield. ‘Direct lending’ allows investors to take on the role of lending money to middle-size companies. The article made the point that the flood of money had reduced yields as well as the safety of the loans—perhaps investors should look elsewhere.

As if on cue, we immediately received an email about a direct lending strategy ‘formerly available only to institutional investors.’ It is said to be an innovative way to generate current income.

After years of near-zero interest rates and lingering fears about the stock market, who isn’t looking for an innovative way to generate income—particularly with a strategy formerly available only to institutions?

Clearly, investment products are designed to catch investors, not investment returns.

Behavioral economists have amply demonstrated how prone we humans are to make irrational decisions—to do the wrong thing at the wrong time. The bane of investing is the tendency to buy in euphoria near the peak and sell in panic near the low. The crowd seems to miss on the timing, time after time.

You know our principles include the idea of avoiding stampedes. We know that going against the crowd can be rewarding—our approach is contrarian. When something we are doing becomes popular, we need to think about doing something different. And if everybody else is buying some sector or product, we are likely to be suspicious of it.

Market history is full of products that attracted lots and lots of money, but little in the way of returns. It is much like sporting goods stores full of lures that catch fishermen, not fish. Clients, if you would like to talk about this or any other pertinent topic, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Structured products typically have two components; a note and a derivative and a fixed maturity. They are complicated investments intended for a “buy and hold” strategy and offer protection from downside risk in exchange for forgoing some upside potential to achieve that protection. Principal protection may vary from partial to 100 percent.

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

Investment Success and EQ

© Can Stock Photo / Mark2121

We write about productive investment attitudes and habits because we have seen first-hand their power to improve one’s position. Knowledge improves behavior, effective behavior increases account balances, growing balances raise our revenues. Everybody wins.

Behavioral economists have identified ways in which humans seem wired to make poor financial decisions based on emotions. We know from our work with you that this neither dooms our investment performance nor requires us to settle for mediocre results.

Communicating ideas and perspectives is therefore at the very heart of our enterprise. So we were excited to find the work of author Justin Bariso. He wrote the following concise wisdom about his field of expertise:

“Emotional intelligence is the ability to make emotions work for you, instead of against you.”

Some propose that emotional intelligence and its measurement, EQ, is more vital to success in business and life than one’s intelligence quotient, or IQ. This makes a great deal of sense to us, generally, although brains are wonderfully useful in our work, too.

We think Bariso’s statement has special meaning in the world of investing. Many people let emotions work against them; behavioral economics demonstrates this. Our approach, which explicitly seeks to avoid stampedes and embraces unpopular viewpoints, absolutely seeks to let emotions work for us. Emotions create anomalies in market prices, and that is where our opportunities live.

Legendary investor Warren Buffett once said, “Be greedy when others are fearful, and fearful when others are greedy.” Isn’t this just another way to say ‘make emotions work for you instead of against you?’

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or any other pertinent topic, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

Short Cuts

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When I was a child, a friend and I were off on some adventure or other. We arrived back at his home quite a bit later than expected. His mother was waiting, and demanded an explanation. My friend’s answer was Marx Brothers-quality dialogue: “We took a short-cut!”

His mother seemed to think that a short cut ought to reduce travel time, not increase it.

Some financial professionals and investment advisors take a very similar short cut. They adopt the view that it is either not possible to do better than the market averages, or not worth the effort of trying.

The reasons sound plausible, but may not stand up under examination. Human nature often encourages counterproductive behavior. We believe untrained human nature is a poor guide to investing; training and education may improve investor behavior, which may improve investment results. But the short-cutters seem to pander to human nature in its untrained state.

Active investment managers typically underperform the market averages, and this is often cited as evidence “it is too hard to beat the market.” What many fail to see is that active managers have human beings as customers, so may include popular investments and avoid out-of-favor sectors in order to draw more funds to manage. These tactics, of course, may be detrimental to actual investment results.

So that human nature thing enters into that argument, as well.

Life is straightforward for the short-cutters. They typically avoid the hard work of researching specific investment opportunities; they spend no time reading SEC filings, press releases, and conference call transcripts. They have no reason to try to understand the role of emotion driving money into different market sectors.

Hey, it is a free country and we are glad it is. Each person is entitled to his or her own opinion; investors are free to use or ignore any advice or advisors.

The short-cutters have become very popular. At the same time, with your help, our business has continued to grow and prosper. We do not mind the existence of short-cutters; they may actually reduce the competition for favorable opportunities. But we do want you to understand what we are talking about, and why.

If you have questions or comments on how this may apply to your situation, please write or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

The Giants Who Came Before Us

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 The work of Roger Babson contains countless worthwhile nuggets. He was a Wall Street pioneer a century ago, creator of the first investment research service, and philanthropist of note. A keen observer of business, the markets and the economy, and an original thinker, his words ring true today.

We see applications to the world of investing. For example:

“Experience has taught me that there is one chief reason why some people succeed and others fail. The difference is not one of knowing, but of doing. So far as success can be reduced to a formula, it consists of this: doing what you know you should do.

Thoughtful people understand the sentiment behind the old saying, ‘buy low, sell high.’ It has become a cliché. Yet in tumultuous and uncertain times when pessimism rules and stock prices have fallen, many people have trouble with step one: buying low. It turns out to be very difficult in practice.

We’ve also had conversations in the tough times with people who say “I know selling out now is the wrong thing to do, but that is what I want to do.” Clearly, this is a case of knowing what you should do—and doing the opposite! We illustrated how costly that can be here.

Without knowing Babson’s Rule, we have spent many years working to find or train investment clients who would do what they know they should do. You, our clients, are the best. We believe our efforts have been good for you-–and for us.

We will keep on working to find good opportunities, avoid threats where we can, and cultivate effective attitudes about investing—helping you do what you know you should do. If you would like to discuss your situation in detail, please write or call.


Securities offered through LPL Financial, Member FINRA/SIPC.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

Meet Your Partner, Mr. Market

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Suppose that you owned a partnership interest in a business, and that your business partner was readily available any day to either buy out your half of the business or sell his half to you—as long as the price was right.

Suppose, though, that your partner suffered from erratic mood swings. He can quote you the price he’ll buy or sell for any time, but his appraisals are always colored by his current mood. When business is good he over-values the business and offers you the moon for your half of the business; when business is poor he becomes pessimistic and offers to sell you his share for pennies on the dollar.

This is a metaphor Warren Buffett uses in his shareholder letters to describe the stock market from the investor’s perspective, dubbing our hypothetical business partner “Mr. Market.” As a stock holder you have an ownership interest of a tiny slice in a business. There is a market to buy or sell shares of the business at almost any time. But the price the market may give you depends on investor moods.

According to Buffett, if you understand the value of a business it’s in your best interest to take advantage of Mr. Market’s mood swings to trade when his prices are at their most irrational. However, he also offers this warning:

“But, like Cinderella at the ball, you must heed one warning or everything will turn into pumpkins and mice: Mr. Market is there to serve you, not to guide you. It is his pocketbook, not his wisdom, that you will find useful. If he shows up some day in a particularly foolish mood, you are free to either ignore him or to take advantage of him, but it will be disastrous if you fall under his influence.”

So when the market is in a frenzy of buying or selling, there may be opportunities to profitably take advantage of the stampede—but not to join it.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Human Nature Creates Investment Opportunity

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Economists like to believe that human beings act rationally. Those of us that know otherwise follow the theory of Behavioral Economics instead.

One of the key findings of Behavioral Economics is that the pain of a loss is twice as great as the pleasure of a corresponding gain. Rationally speaking, $5 is $5, whether it is gained or lost. But we still feel the sting of the loss as a bigger deal than the pleasure arising from the gain. This is human nature in its raw, untrained state.

Confounding this finding is an extremely pertinent point, one that is ignored by the academics and the finance types who trade off their work. They treat a temporary decline as a loss. There is no shortage of expensive products designed to pander to this tendency by selling the promise of stability at a premium.

In the real world, many successful investors treat a temporary decline as either an opportunity, or a matter of no long term consequence. For most of us it takes education and training to overcome our behavioral tendency to feel the pain of a loss over short-term volatility. We’re here to help you with that.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.