Most studies of historical risk and return tell us to sell when prices rise and buy when they fall. “Bull markets are born on pessimism, grown on skepticism, mature on optimism and die on euphoria,” goes the old adage. Sell greed and buy fear, as they say. Yet, we often end up doing the opposite. Sometimes that works for a short period, but it often ends in tears. The only way to avoid this emotional roller coaster is to stick to a disciplined investment plan.
“To invest successfully over a lifetime does not require a stratospheric IQ, unusual business insights or inside information,” said veteran investor Warren Buffett. “What is needed is a sound intellectual framework for making decisions and the ability to keep emotions from corroding that framework.”
The figure which follows traces our emotional range on the investment roller coaster. Financial risk peaks when we are euphoric and troughs when we are disgusted. The only antidote to emotion is a disciplined investment strategy which balances portfolio management rigor with adjustments for behavioral biases.
To reflect or reflex?
Could we be our own worst enemy by enacting such a disciplined investment plan? Data confirms that most investors fail at timing markets. “The investor’s chief problem — and even his worst enemy — is likely to be himself,” said Benjamin Graham, Warren Buffett’s mentor. Does success depend as much on managing emotions as it does on sound financial analysis?
Behavioral science suggests the answer is yes. With due apology to my creationist friends, the science of evolution asserts we have two brains. The first is a modern “executive” brain which is reflective, analytical, rational, logical and predictable. The second is the first brain’s alter ago: a reflexive or “lizard” brain, which is the residue of our primordial ancestors. The reptilian latter is impulsive, hyperactive and prone to hasty and often erroneous decisions. In fact, studies show two different computational ‘systems’ are at work inside us: the reflexive system is made of emotional circuits, and the reflective one of analytic circuits. When there is a strong stimulus, especially a negative one, like a sudden fall in the price of one’s stock or bond, fear kicks in and the reflexive system overwhelms the reflective system.
This is not kooky pop psychology; it is the result of decades of research by scholars like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky The former being awarded the Nobel Prize in 2002 for having “integrated insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty,” according to the Nobel committee. The science was further popularized by Harvard researcher Terry Burnham, who describes our lizard brain as a “pattern-seeking, backward-looking system which allowed us to forage successfully for food, and repeat successful behaviors.”
Emotions push an investor toward pro-cyclical reflexive behavior: buying when rising prices stoke excitement and selling when falling prices prompt fear. A disciplined, value-conscious investor would reflect and do the opposite: sell risky asset classes as they rise in value and buy the undervalued ones. In the long run, I believe this counter-cyclical process results in more portfolio stability, less volatility and greater compound return on investments.
The denominator effect
The investment world is emotionally exciting because it is overloaded with kinetic energy, just as action movies, even bad ones, often outsell good but slow moving dramas. Stoked by rapidly moving price signals, our sensible reflective system is sometimes overtaken by our impulsive reflexive system. The result is smart people who make unwise investment decisions.
The prices of most instruments change almost daily, creating a push and pull of emotions and expectations. This emotional angst is best understood by distinguishing between the emotional impact of a single asset’s return versus the portfolio’s overall return. Lets say 2 percent of one’s portfolio is invested in a single stock. Even if it doubles in value, which is very emotionally rewarding, you have an uninspiring gain of ‘only’ 2 percent on your portfolio, known as the denominator effect. In other words, the largeness of the denominator subdues the rapid movements of the numerator, yet your ‘emotional equity’ is centered on the numerator. What matters in the long run is the unexciting denominator, which is the overall portfolio’s final value, better known as your early ticket to a cozy retirement. Often an investor is inappropriately focused on the numerator not just because he owns it but, also because he has perhaps bragged about this hot stock tip with his cocktail party cohorts. Given such social conditioning, if the stock is in trouble he is unwilling to sell; even if that is the correct thing to do, because his ego or emotions are too wrapped up in it.
Desperately seeking patterns
The reflexive part of our brain is pattern seeking, groping for logical patterns to often illogical stock price movements. Too many investors rely too much on historical prices for predictions about the future. Buffett has a little advice to avoid this reflexive trap.
“I always like to look at investments without looking at the price, because if you see the price it automatically has some influence on you,” he said.
In other words, focus on enduring business value, not the more emotional issue of price. Also, by the time a price pattern or trend is visible, the easy money has already been made by investors who overcame their fear to buy before the positive news emerged. As George Soros said, “the big money is made when things go from God-awful to just plain awful.”
A disciplined rebalancing plan ensures that, at the bottom of the emotional roller coaster, you are methodically buying some asset classes which look awful in the rear-view mirror, and thus ignoring both illogical patterns and fears.
Current emotional state
Currently, with the MSCI World Index (a benchmark for global stock prices) at 922 and delicately poised 45 percent below the October 2007 high (about 33 percent above the March 2009 low) what should the reflective investor do? I believe we are still in the fear phase, but have passed through the desperation phase since the worst of the deflationary risk appears to be behind us. But equity investors may have become too optimistic about a V-shaped recovery, which I believe is unlikely. Only when bouts of optimism, such as the one we are currently experiencing, are repeatedly extinguished will we reach the disgust and capitulation stages which will signal the true market bottom.
For example, US and European stocks were mostly range bound, rising and falling within a specific range, during the “lost decade” between 1968 and 1979. The bottom and capitulation came in 1974, but the long lingering disgust eventually led to the infamous 1979 Business Week headline, ‘Death of Equities.’ With emotions washed out, an equity bull market began barely three years later.
With many leading banks forecasting global equities’ fair value at about 10 percent higher than current levels, is this the time to keep climbing the wall of worry? On the local front, with MSCI Arabia trading at 435, a strong 35 percent above its March lows and with oil having already recovered 70 percent from its recent low of $34 per barrel, is it wise to continue adding Middle East exposure to our global investment portfolios?
Both globally and locally, I believe a middling macro recovery will materialize late this year or early 2010, and that equity markets will bottom out about six months prior to that. Since it is extremely difficult to catch the bottom, I believe it is better to average into the market over the next six to nine months. Using this strategy, an investor will likely buy into the bottom of the market. From examinations of historical recovery pattern data, it looks like at least one additional price correction is likely to occur. Whether there will be a future round of capitulation and disgust depends on how successful the Group of 20 is with its ambitious reflationary and stimulus policies and how well those policies can keep populist protectionism at bay.
Two ways to roll unemotionally
There are two approaches to investing without emotion. First, commit to a disciplined investment process which is diversified and is based on the tried and true concepts of averaging and rebalancing. Second, one can invest in funds that use sophisticated computer models to trade many markets at once, rapidly trading price trends before emotional humans can, and arbitraging price discrepancies across markets.
In all cases, putting a wall between emotions and investment decisions is more difficult than it might seem, and is best achieved by first carefully formulating risk and return goals. Hiring a trained, unemotional and discretionary asset allocator to diversify a large portion of your portfolio, while allocating a small portion to funds run by unemotional, quantitative systems, can also help to keep one’s hot head from making unwise decisions.
Rehan syed is the head of portfolio management at the ABN AMRO Private Bank in Dubai. The opinions expressed here are personal and not necessarily those of his employer