You Are Somebody, Not Everybody

© Can Stock Photo / Bialasiewicz

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.

The 61% Syndrome

© Can Stock Photo / phildate

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.