The Money Game & The Human Brain

Lance Roberts  |

Jason Zweig, a neuroscience and Benjamin Graham expert, re-published an article last year entitled: “Ben Graham, The Human Brain, And The Bubble.” The entire article is a worthy read but there were a few points in particular he made that are just as relevant today as they were when he wrote the original essay in 2003.

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I have written about the psychological issues which impede investors returns over longer-term time frames in the past. They aren’t just psychological, but also financial. To wit:

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While “buy and hold” and “dollar cost averaging” sound great in theory, the actual application is an entirely different matter. Ultimately, as individuals, we do everything backwards. We “buy” when market exuberance is at its peak and asset prices are overvalued, and we “sell” when valuations are cheap and there is a “rush for the exits.”

Behavioral biases are an issue which remains little understood and accounted for when individuals begin their investing journey. Dalbar defined (9) nine of these behavioral biases specifically:

Cognitive biases impairs our ability to remain emotionally disconnected from our money.

But it isn’t entirely your fault. The Wall Street marketing machine, through effective use of media, have changed our view of investing from a “process to grow savings over time” to a “get rich quick scheme” to offset the shortfall in savings. Why “save” money when the market will “make you rich?”

As I addressed in “Retirees Face A Pension Crisis Of Their Own:”

Jason discussed another important psychological barrier to our success.

The “illusion of control,” is another behavioral bias that individuals regularly face. When stock prices are rising, especially in a momentum-driven market, individuals believe that have it “all figured out.” The inherent problems which arise from this “over-confidence” are the layering of “risks” in portfolios which are misunderstood until a correction process begins. As I wrote previously:

The reality is that as individuals we are NOT investors, but rather just speculators hoping the share of stock we purchased today, will be able to be sold at a higher price later. Unfortunately, since individuals are told to “buy,” but never “sell,” only one-half of the investment process is completed.

In other words, the illusion we are in “control” is simply that. Logically, we know we should “buy low” and “sell high.”Yet it is the entirety of our other behavioral biases that keep us from doing so. But most importantly, it is the consistent message from the mainstream media which “feeds our greed” that asset prices will only move higher…and you surely don’t want to miss out on that.

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Another risk Jason points out is our “addiction.”

As individuals, we are “addicted” to the “dopamine effect.” It is why social media has become so ingrained in society today as individuals constantly look to see how many likes, shares, retweets, or comments they have received. That instant gratification and acknowledgment keep us glued to our screens and less involved in the world around us.

We are addicted.

As Jason notes, a team of researchers have proved this point:

Fortunately, we have support groups to help with most of our addictions from alcohol to gambling. While these groups are there to help us curb our addictive and destructive behaviors for some things, the investing world is full of groups which exist to “feed” our investing addiction.

What are the most popular apps on our “smartphones?”

Video games and social media.

Why, because of the “dopamine” our brain releases.

This is why apps like “Robinhood” and “Stash” that allow for online trading straight from our phones have gained in such popularity. The “immediacy effect” of instant feedback on success or failure keeps us clicking for next winner. Wall Street has become a full-blown casino with individuals lining up to pull the lever to see if they are the next big winner. But, just as it is in Las Vegas, the “house usually wins.”

Adding to our list of behavioral flaws and biases when it comes to investing, Jason points out another:

While individuals regularly proclaim to be “long-term investors,” the average holding period for stocks has shrunk from more than 6-years in the 1970’s to less than 6-months currently.

These psychological and behavioral issues are exceedingly difficult to control and lead us regularly to making poor investment decisions over time. But this is where the role of an “advisor” should be truly defined and valued.

While the performance chase, a by-product of the very behavioral issues we wish to control, leads everyone to seek out last years “hottest” performing manager or advisor, this is not really the advisor’s main role. The role of an Advisor is NOT beating some random benchmark index or to promote a “buy and hold” strategy. (There is no sense in paying for a model you can do yourself.)

Jason summed it well:

Given that individuals are emotional and subject to emotional swings caused by market volatility, the Advisors role is not only to be a portfolio manager, but also a psychologist. Dalbar suggested four successful practices to reduce harmful behaviors:

The challenge, of course, it understanding that the next major impact event, market reversion, will NOT HAVE the identical characteristics of the previous events. This is why comparing today’s market to that of 2000 or 2007 is pointless. Only the outcome will be the same.

One thing that all the negative behaviors have in common is that they can lead investors to deviate from a sound investment strategy that was narrowly tailored towards their goals, risk tolerance, and time horizon.

The best way to ward off the aforementioned negative behaviors is to employ a strategy that focuses on one’s goals and is not reactive to short-term market conditions. The data shows that the average mutual fund investor has not stayed invested for a long enough period of time to reap the rewards that the market can offer more disciplined investors. The data also shows that when investors react, they generally make the wrong decision.

The reality is that the majority of advisors are ill-prepared for an impact event to occur. This is particularly the case in late-stage bull market cycles where complacency runs high.

When the impact event occurs, advisors who are prepared to handle responses, provide clear messaging, and an action plan for both conserving investment capital and eventual recovery will find success in obtaining new clients.

The discussion of why “this time is not like the last time” is largely irrelevant. Whatever gains that investors garner in the between now and the next impact event by chasing the “bullish thesis” will be largely wiped away in a swift and brutal downdraft. Of course, this is the sad history of individual investors in the financial markets as they are always “told to buy” but never “when to sell.”

You can do better.

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of equities.com. Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to: http://www.equities.com/disclaimer.

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