10 Behavioral biases that can ruin your investments

10 Behavioral biases that can ruin your investments

As a financial advisor, I often speak with my clients about behavioral biases. Our emotions can put a heavy load on our investment decisions. In this article, I would like to discuss ten behavioral biases that I encounter every day. It’s not a complete list, but it’s a good starting point to understand your behavioral biases and how to deal with them.

We have to make choices every day. Often our decisions are based on limited information or constrained by time. We want to make the right call every single time. But sometimes we are wrong. Sometimes we can be our worst enemy. Stress, distraction, media, and market craziness could get the worst of us.

Behavioral finance

In 2018 Richard Thaler won the Nobel prize for his work in behavioral economics. In his 2009 book “Nudge” and later on in his 2015 book “Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics,” Thaler reveals the architecture of the human decision-making process. He talks about behavioral biases, anomalies, and impulses that drive our daily choices.

In another study about the value of the financial advisor or the advisor alpha, Vanguard concluded that clients using a financial advisor have the potential to add 1.5% of additional annual returns as a result of behavioral coaching. Further on, Vanguard concludes that because investing evokes emotion, advisors need to help their clients maintain a long-term perspective and a disciplined approach.

 

Afraid to start investing 

Social Security is going into deficit by 2035. And most employers moving toward Defined Contribution Plans (401k, 403b, SEP-IRA). It will be up to you and me to secure our retirement by increasing our savings and investments. However, not everybody is in tune. For many people, investing is hard. It’s too complicated. Not all employers provide adequate training about retirement and investment options. And I don’t blame anyone. As much as I try to educate my blog readers, as well as many colleagues, we are outnumbered by the media and all kinds of financial gurus without proper training and credentials. If you are on the boat and want to start investing, talk to a fiduciary financial advisor, or ask your employer for educational and training literature. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions and educate yourself.

“This time is different.”

How many times have you heard “This time is different” from a family member or the next financial guru, who is trying to sell you something? Very likely, it’s not going to be any different. As a matter, it could be worse. As humans, we tend to repeat our mistake over and over. It’s not that we don’t learn from our mistakes. But sometimes it’s just more comforting staying on your turf, not trying something new, and hoping that things will change. So, when you hear “This time is different,” you should be on high alert. Try to read between the lines and assess all your options.

Falling for “guaranteed income” or “can’t lose money” sales pitch

As many people are falling behind their retirement savings, they get tempted to a wide range of “guaranteed income” and “can’t lose money” financial products. The long list includes but not limited to annuities, life insurance products, private real estate, cryptocurrency, and reverse mortgage. Many of these products come with sky-high commissions and less than transparent fees, costly riders, and complex restrictions and high breakup fees. The sales pitch is often at an expensive steakhouse or a golf club following a meeting in the salesperson’s office where the deals are closed. If someone is offering you a free steak dinner to buy a financial product that you do not fully understand, please trust me on it – you will be the one picking the tab in the end.

Selling after a market crash

One of the most prominent behavioral biases people make in investing is selling their investments after a market crash. As painful as it could be, it’s one of the worst decisions you could make. Yes, markets are volatile. Yes, markets crash sometimes. But nobody has made any money panicking. You need to control your impulses to sell at the bottom. I know it’s not easy because I have been there myself. What really helps is thinking long-term. You can ask yourself, do you need this money right away. If you are going to retire in another 10 or 20 years, you don’t need to touch your portfolio, period. Market swings are an essential part of the economic cycle. Recessions help clean up the bad companies with a poor business model and ineffective management and let the winners take over.

You may remember that the rise of Apple coincided with the biggest recession in our lifetime, 2008 – 2009. Does anyone still remember Blackberry, Nokia, or Motorola, who were the pioneers of mobile phones?

Keeping your investments in cash

Another common behavioral bias is keeping your investments in cash…..indefinitely. People who keep their 401k or IRA in cash almost always miss the market recovery. At that point, they either have to chase the rally or must wait for a market correction and try to get in again. As a financial advisor, I would like to tell you that it is impossible to time exactly any market rally. By the time you realize it. It’s already too late.

To understand why timing the markets and avoiding risk by keeping cash can be harmful, see what happens if an investor misses the biggest up days in the market. The hypothetical table below looks at the performance of $10,000 invested in the S&P 500 between January 4, 1988, and December 31, 2018. It’s important to note this hypothetical investment occurred during two of the biggest bear markets in history, the 2000 tech bubble crash and the 2008 global financial crisis.

10 Behavioral biases that can ruin your investments - Keeping Cash

As you can see, missing the ten best days over between 1998 and 2018 meant earning nearly 2.5% less on an annual basis and leaving half of the potential absolute gains on the table. Here’s the kicker: Six of the 10 “best days” in the market were within weeks of the worst days in the market. In other words, some of the best days often happen as “v-shaped” bounces off the worst days. Going to cash on a big negative day means increasing the risk of missing a big positive day which, as can be seen from the table above, can have a substantial impact on your returns over time.

Chasing hot investments

One of the most common behavioral biases is chasing hot investments. People generally like to be with the winners. It feels good. It pumps your ego. There is a whole theory of momentum investing based on findings that investors buy recent winners and continue to buy their stock for another 6 to 12 months. We have seen it time and time again – from the tech bubble in 2000, through the mortgage-backed securities in 2008, to cryptocurrency and cannabis stocks in 2018. People like highflyers. Some prior hot stocks like Apple, Google, and Amazon dominate the stock markets today. Others like Motorola, Nokia, and GE dwindle in obscureness. If an investment had a considerable run, sometimes it’s better to let it go. Don’t chase it.

Holding your losers too long

“The most important thing to do if you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging.” – Warren Buffett.

In a research conducted in the 1990s by professor Terrance Odean, he concluded that investors tend to hold to their losers a lot longer than their winners. A result of this approach, those investors continue to incur losses in the near future. Professor Odean offers a few explanations for his findings. One reason is that investors rationally or irrationally believe that their current losers will outperform. A second explanation comes from the Prospect Theory by Kahneman and Tversky (1979). According to them, investors become risk-averse about their winners and risk-seeking to their losers.

When it comes to losing bets, they are willing to take a higher gamble and seek to recover their original purchase price. A third theory that I support and observed is based on emotions. The pain from selling your losers is twice as high as the joy from selling your winners. We don’t like to be wrong. We want to hold on to the hope that we made the right decision. After all, it is a gamble, and the odds will be against you. At some point, we just need to make peace with your losses and move on. It’s not easy, but it’s the right thing to do.

Holding your winners too long

There is a quote by the famous financier Bernard Baruch – “I made my money by selling too soon.” Many people, however, often hold on to their winners for very long. Psychologically, it’s comforting to see your winners and feel great about your investment choices. There is nothing wrong with being a winner. But at some point, you must ask yourself, is it worth it. How long this run can go for and should you cash in some of your profits. What if your winners are making up a large part of your investment portfolio? Wouldn’t this put your entire retirement savings at risk if something were to happen to that investment?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to selling your winners. Furthermore, there could be tax implications if you realize the gains in your brokerage account. However, it’s prudent to have an exit strategy. As much as it hurts (stops the joy) to sell the winners, it could lower the risk of your portfolio and allow you to diversify amongst other investments and asset classes.

Checking your portfolio every day

The stock market is volatile. Your investments will change every day. There will be large swings in both directions. So, checking your portfolio every single day can only drive crazy and will not move the needle. It could lead to irrational and emotional decisions that could have serious long-term repercussions. Be patient, disciplined, and follow your long-term plan.

Not seeking advice

Seeking advice from a complete stranger can be scary. You must reveal some of your biggest secrets to a person you never met before. It’s s big step. I wish the media spends more time talking about the thousands of fiduciary advisors out there who honestly and trustworthy look for your best interest.

My financial advisory service is based on trust between you as a client and me as the advisor . So, do not be afraid to seek advice, but you also need to do your homework. Find an advisor who will represent you and your family and will care about your personal goal and financial priorities. Don’t be afraid to interview several advisors before you find the best match for you.

Final words

“The most important quality for an investor is temperament, not intellect. You need a temperament that neither derives great pleasure from being with the crowd or against the crowd.” – Warren Buffet.

Investing is an emotional act. We put our chips on the table and wish for a great outcome. We win, or we lose. Understanding your emotions and behavioral biases will help you become a better investor. It doesn’t mean that we will always make the right decisions. It doesn’t mean that we will never make a mistake again. We are humans, not robots. Behavioral biases are part of our system. Knowing how we feel and why feel a certain way, can help us when the markets are volatile, when things get ugly or the “next big thing” is offered to us. Look at the big picture. Know your goals and financial priorities. Try to block the noise and keep a long-term view.

Reach out

If you have questions about your investments and retirement savings, reach out to me at stoyan@babylonwealth.com or +925-448-9880.

You can also visit my Insights page, where you can find helpful articles and resources on how to make better financial and investment decisions.

About the author:

Stoyan Panayotov, CFA, founder of Babylon Wealth Management

Stoyan Panayotov, CFA, MBA is a fee-only financial advisor in Walnut Creek, CA, serving clients in the San Francisco Bay Area and nationally. Babylon Wealth Management specializes in financial planning, retirement planning, and investment management for growing families, physicians, and successful business owners.

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Latest Articles

Market Outlook April 2018

Market Outlook April 2018

Market Outlook April 2018

After a record high 2017, the volatility has finally returned. Last year the market experienced one of the highest risk-adjusted performances in recent history. In 2017 there were only 10 trading where the S&P 500 moved by more than 1% in either direction, with not a single trading day when it moved by more than 2%. In contrast, in the 61 trading days of Q1 of 2018, we had 26 days when the S&P 500 moved by more than 1% and 8 days where it changed by more than 2%.

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VIX Index Q1 2018

Market Outlook April 2018
VIX index Q1 2018. Source Yahoo Finance

The VIX Index, which measures the volatility of the S&P 500 started the year ar 9.77. It peaked at 37.33 and ended the quarter at 19.97.

Markets do not like uncertainty, and so far, Q1 had plenty of that. In the first 3 months of the year market landscape was dominated by news about rising inflation and higher interest rates, the Toys R Us bankruptcy, trade war talks and tariffs against China, and scandals related to Facebook user data privacy.

Except for Gold, all major market indices finished in the negative territory.

IndexQ1 2018
S&P 500-1.00%
Russell 2000-0.18%
MSCI EAFE-0.90%
Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index-1.47%
Gold+1.73%

 

Fixed Income

Traditionally bonds have served as an anchor for equity markets. Over time stocks and US Treasury bond have shown a negative correlation. Usually, bonds would rise when stocks prices are falling as investors are moving to safer investments. However, in 2018 we observed a weakening of this relationship. There were numerous trading days when stocks and bonds were moving in the same direction.

On the other hand, despite rising interest rates, we see the lowest 10-year/2-year treasury spread since the October of 2007. The spread between the two treasury maturities was 0.47 as of March 29, 2018. While not definite, historically negative or flat spreads have preceded an economic recession.

Momentum

Momentum remained one of the most successful strategies of 2018 and reported +2.97%. Currently, this strategy is dominated by Technology, Financials, Industrials, and Consumer Cyclical stocks. Some of the big names include Microsoft, JP Morgan, Amazon, Intel, Bank of America, Boeing, CISCO, and Mastercard.

Value

Value stocks continued to disappoint and reported -3.73% return in the Q1 of 2018. Some of the biggest names in this strategy like Exxon Mobile, Wells Fargo, AT&T, Chevron, Verizon, Citigroup, Johnson & Johnson, DowDuPont and Wall-Mart fell close to or more than -10%. As many of these companies are high dividend payers, rising interest rates have decreased the interest of income-seeking investors in this segment of the market.

Small Cap

As small-cap stocks stayed on the sideline of the last year’s market rally, they were mostly unaffected by the recent market volatility.  Given that most small-cap stocks derive their revenue domestically, we expect them to benefit significantly from the lower tax rates and intensified trade war concerns.

Gold

Gold remained a solid investment choice in the Q1 of 2018. It was one of the few asset classes that reported modest gains. If the market continues to b volatile, we anticipate more upside potential for Gold.

 

Outlook

  • We anticipate that the market volatility will continue in the second quarter until many of the above issues get some level of clarification or resolution.
  • We expect that small and large-cap stocks with a strong domestic focus to benefit from the trade tariffs tension with China and other international partners
  • The actual impact of lower taxes on corporate earnings will be revealed in the second half of 2018 as Q3 and Q4 earnings will provide a clear picture of earnings net of accounting and tax adjustments.
  • Strong corporate earnings and revenue growth have the ability to decrease the current market volatility. However, weaker than expected earnings can have a dramatically opposite effect and drive down the already unstable markets.
  • If the Fed continues to hike their short-term lending rates and inflation rises permanently above 2%, we could see a further decline in bond prices.
  • Our strategy is to remain diversified across asset classes and focus on long-term risk-adjusted performance

 

If you have any questions about your existing investment portfolio or how to start investing for retirement and other financial goals, reach out to me at stoyan@babylonwealth.com or +925-448-9880.

About the author:

Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is the founder and CEO of Babylon Wealth Management, a fee-only investment advisory firm based in Walnut Creek, CA. Babylon Wealth Management offers personalized wealth management and financial planning services to individuals and families.  To learn more visit our Private Client Services page here. Additionally, we offer Outsourced Chief Investment Officer services to professional advisors (RIAs), family offices, endowments, defined benefit plans, and other institutional clients. To find out more visit our OCIO page here.

Disclaimer: Past performance does not guarantee future performance. Nothing in this article should be construed as a solicitation or offer, or recommendation, to buy or sell any security. The content of this article is a sole opinion of the author and Babylon Wealth Management. The opinion and information provided are only valid at the time of publishing this article. Investing in these asset classes may not be appropriate for your investment portfolio. If you decide to invest in any of the instruments discussed in the posting, you have to consider your risk tolerance, investment objectives, asset allocation and overall financial situation. Different investors have different financial circumstances, and not all recommendations apply to everybody. Seek advice from your investment advisor before proceeding with any investment decisions. Various sources may provide different figures due to variations in methodology and timing,

 

The Rise of Momentum Investing

The Rise of Momentum Investing

The Rise of Momentum Investing

While the momentum theory has been around for two decades, we had to wait until 2017 to see the rise of momentum investing. The largest momentum ETF (MTUM) is up 35% YTD. And unless something dramatic happens in the remaining few weeks, momentum will crush all major market-cap weighted indices and ETFs.

About this time last year, I posted my first article about momentum investing in Seeking Alpha. You can see my article here. At that time MTUM had only $1.8 billion of AUM and trailed the S&P 500 2016 returns in the range of 5% versus 12%. Eleven months later, MTUM is up 35% versus 16.5%. I can’t take any credit for calling this wide margin in performance, but it certainly grabbed the attention of investors. MTUM is currently at $4.8b AUM and possibly growing even more down the road.

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What is momentum investing

So what is momentum and why do we keep hearing about it a lot more lately?

The momentum investing is a pure behavioral play. Not surprisingly the rise of momentum investing coincided with Richard Thaler’s Nobel award for his work on how human behavior and finance play out together.

Momentum investing exploits the theory that recent stock winners will continue to rise in the near-term. The strategy is based on the 1993 Journal of Finance research “Returns to Buying Winners and Selling Losers: Implications for Stock Market Efficiency” by Narasimhan Jegadeesh and Sheridan Titman

Their research discovers a pattern that buying stocks that have performed well in the past and selling stocks that have performed poorly generate significant positive returns over 3- to 12-month holding periods. Furthermore, the research discusses that the success of this strategy is due to behavioral finance factors.

Investors commonly overact on the news and therefore overbuy the winners and oversell the losers.

Many investors consider the momentum strategy as a substitute for growth investing. However, the momentum theory embraces both value and growth stocks as long as they have risen in the past 6 to 12 months.

While the momentum theory has been around for over 20 years, the strategy has not received a wide acceptance amongst investors. Despite its academic fundamentals, momentum strategy has experienced contradictory practical interpretations amongst fund managers, which has reported a massive variability of returns.

Fortunately, the growing popularity of market-cap and smart beta ETFs made the momentum strategy widely available to retail investors. Further down, I will discuss how to take advantage of the momentum theory by using MTUM – iShares Edge MSCI USA Momentum Factor ETF. This ETF has been around since April 2013. It has a dividend yield of 1.12% and an expense ratio of 0.15%.

MTUM replicates the MSCI USA Momentum Index. MSCI USA Momentum Index uses a multi-step process to filter for stocks that fit the momentum criteria. The composition process starts with selecting companies with the highest 6- and 12- month performance. The performance is later weighted by their 3-year standard deviation and given a momentum score. The final weight in the momentum index is given by multiplying the momentum score by the market capitalization weight in the parent index. In this case, the parent index is MSCI USA Index, which has 616 constituents and covers about 85% of the US market cap. Company weights for MSCI USA Momentum Index are capped at 5%. The index is rebalanced semiannually. However, spikes in market volatility can trigger ad-hoc rebalancing.

 

Performance and risk

MSCI USA Momentum Index has consistently outperformed MSCI USA and S&P 500 since its inception. The index has achieved a cumulative return of 531% versus 400% for MSCI USA and 423% for S&P 500 since October 2002.

In annualized terms, MSCI USA Momentum Index posted 9.07% 10-year return and 13.65% return since its inception in 1994.

The index beat its parent in 9 out of the past 15 years and underperformed in six – 2003, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2016.

It is an interesting observation that the Momentum strategy underperformed in the years following a significant market pullback or sluggish return (02-03, 05-06, 08-09 and 11-12). It takes a two-year cycle for the Momentum Index to start outperforming again after experiencing a negative period. The composition of the index is somewhat reactive, which naturally doesn’t allow it to take advantage of market rallies in specific sectors.

MSCI USA Momentum Index Performance

Source: MSCI

 

Counterintuitively to what some may think, the MSCI Momentum Index has reported lower standard deviation (risk) than its parent index for the past 3-year and slightly higher standard deviation for the 5- and 10-year period. The risk-weighted methodology described earlier helps the index cap its volatility despite high turnover.

Higher returns and capped volatility has allowed the momentum index to report consistently high risk-adjusted returns. Its 10-year Sharpe ratio is 0.59 versus 0.51 for MSCI USA and 0.53 for S&P 500. Since inception, the Momentum Index posted the impressive 0.72 versus 0.54 MSCI USA and S&P 500.

MSCI USA Momentum Index Risk Adjusted Returns

Source: MSCI

 

MTUM ETF

Going back to the iShares Edge MSCI USA Momentum Factor ETF, it has been around since April 2013. Since inception, its performance has been consistent with the index. MTUM posted 17.3% return versus 13.4% for S&P 500 and 15.32% for IWF, Russell 1000 growth ETF.

MTUM Performance Since inception

MTUM has reported a Sharpe ratio of 1.61 vs. 1.33 for S&P 500 and 1.41 for IWF.

Few other interesting facts for investors looking to diversify. The US market correlation is equal to 0.87. Beta is 0.90. Alpha is 4.7%, and R2 is 73.7%. In other words, the momentum strategy achieved its return not only with less risk but a lot lower correlation to the total market, which is critical for portfolio diversification.

MTUM Holdings

Momentum investing is a dynamic strategy with quarterly rebalancing. Due to its 114% turnover, it is extremely cost ineffective for the average retail investor to replicate it

Currently, MTUM overweights Financials, Technology, and Industrials which have primarily driven the market since the beginning of 2017. Simultaneously, the ETF underweights Consumer Cyclical, Utilities, and Energy. Its main holdings include Microsoft, Bank of America, JP Morgan, Apple, United Health Group, NVIDIA, Home Depot, Comcast, and Boeing. Just to illustrate the dynamic nature of this strategy, a year ago its top holdings were in Technology and Utilities with leading names such as Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Nextera.

 

Final thoughts

  1. The momentum strategy has outperformed the broad market in the past 22 years.
  2. While being in the public eye for over two decades and posting impressive long-term absolute and risk-adjusted returns, the momentum strategy is still not a highly popular trade and has mostly been a theoretical exercise with conflicting practical results.
  3. Only lately, the rise of ETFs had made the strategy available to regular investors.
  4. The momentum strategy tends to lean towards sectors with a recent high
  5. Like any factor strategy, the momentum can underperform the broad market for extended periods

 

 

About the author: Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is the founder and CEO of Babylon Wealth Management, a fee-only investment advisory firm. Babylon Wealth Management offers highly customized Outsourced Chief Investment Officer services to professional advisors (RIAs), family offices, endowments, defined benefit plans and other institutional clients. To learn more visit our OCIO page here.

Holdings disclaimer: I own MTUM and we regularly invest MTUM for our clients

Disclaimer: Past performance does not guarantee future performance. Nothing in this article should be construed as a solicitation or offer, or recommendation, to buy or sell any security. The content of this article is a sole opinion of the author and Babylon Wealth Management. The opinion and information provided are only valid at the time of publishing this article. Investing in these asset classes may not be appropriate for your investment portfolio. If you decide to invest in any of the instruments discussed in the posting, you have to consider your risk tolerance, investment objectives, asset allocation and overall financial situation. Different investors have different financial circumstances, and not all recommendations apply to everybody. Seek advice from your investment advisor before proceeding with any investment decisions. Various sources may provide different figures due to variations in methodology and timing,