Dealing With Investor Anxiety: Think Long-Term

Stock prices reflect a mix of emotions, biases and rational calculations. The bond market reflects the economy. Historically, bond markets had done a better job in predicting recessions.

The two big bond stories last week were 1) the “inverted yield curve”- when interest rates on short-term bonds are higher than long-term bonds, and 2) yields below 2% on 30 year treasuries- indicating investors expect low inflation and a weaker economy for a long time.

We all remember the 2017 income tax cut that boosted the economy and produced stock markets returns of 20% or more in 2017. These tax cuts were supposed to lay a foundation for many years of high economic growth. Since mid-2018, however, the economic data has been confirming what many of us expected. The tax cuts provided a short sugar “high,” which is now over. Instead, we have trillion dollar deficits and lack of large promised business investments, including infrastructure, which never materialized. The economy has reverted to its pre-stimulus growth rate of near 2%.

This shouldn’t surprise us. No major economy is growing as fast as it was before 2008. In almost every country, the national discussion focuses on what must be done to revive growth and ignores the fact that the slowdown is happening everywhere. The working population is declining in 46 countries around the world, including Japan, Russia and China. Demographics are a key driver of economic growth. So, we can expect to see recessions (two quarters of negative growth) more likely in the future as working populations contract. BTW- the U.S. population is growing at less than 1% per year.

Over the next few decades, we will likely see more growth decline. Ruchir Sharma, author of “The Rise and Fall of Nations,” suggests that new benchmarks for economic success should be 5% growth for emerging countries, 3-4% growth for middle income countries like China, and 1-2% growth for developed countries like the U.S. and Germany.

Yes, there are uncertainties in the market, including US-China trade tensions, a weakening European economy, and concern about a recession. These produce a huge dilemma for U.S. business owners, trying to make plans for the future. So, there are lots of piles of cash, waiting for clarity. We may or may not soon have a recession. Yet all of this uncertainty produces increased volatility and anxiety. And studies show that a 3% down day, like last Wednesday, feels about ten times worse than a 1% down day. What’s an investor to do to reduce anxiety?

We understand it is difficult to think long-term, but we highly recommend it:

1) Recognize that equities will likely produce lower nominal returns in the future. However, with inflation also likely lower, the real returns of equities will likely outpace fixed income and alternatives. Equities will continue to provide the primary engine of growth.

2) Use all three asset classes. A diversified portfolio composed on equities, fixed income and alternatives has been shown to reduce risk and increase return.

3) Review your long-term financial plan and determine what rate of return you need to meet your financial goals. The expected return of your asset allocation must be sufficient to meet your goals or you need to revise your goals and plan.

4) Review your risk profile to determine your appropriate asset allocation. Using the assumption that equities could drop 40% and you can’t tolerate a loss of 10% or more in your portfolio, then your allocation to equities should not exceed 25%. Of course, this allocation would severely limit your upside.

5) Stay invested. Don’t try to time the market. A recent report from Morningstar shows that “low cost funds”, (like those used at DWM), “lead to higher total returns and higher investor returns.” First, for efficient markets, the active managers in the high-cost funds overall produce gross results equal to the benchmarks, but then the additional costs of 1% or more is subtracted. Second, studies show that active managers attempting to time the market have failed and this subtracts another ½% per year from performance. Even highly-paid active managers can’t time the market successfully.

Lastly, in this time of overall investor anxiety, fee-only total wealth managers, like DWM, are here to rescue you. Yes, we execute a detailed process to add value every day in the areas of investing, financial planning, income taxes, insurance and estate planning. Yet, one of our most important tasks we have is to protect our clients from hurting themselves in the capital markets. Investors overall have a very human tendency to do exactly the wrong thing at the worst possible moment.

We understand it’s hard to think long-term. Today’s world moves at a very fast pace. And, the news is often designed to instill fear. Don’t succumb to emotions. Reduce your anxiety. Allowing your portfolio to compound quietly over time can be boring, yet very successful.   If your allocation or the markets are making you anxious, let’s talk.

Did You Ever Dream That You Forgot Your Pants? No Problem.

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Have you ever dreamed that you are walking into a college final exam and you have done no studying for it?   Better yet, in the dream, have you walked into the exam and forgotten your pants? I can tell you from personal experience, I have had dreams where both events occur. Fortunately, I’m pleased to report, this has never happened in real life and likely and hopefully never will. More importantly, though, I now know that my dreams have served an all-important psychological function-working out my anxieties in a low-risk environment and preparing for the future.

Most of the emotions we feel in dreams are negative; including fear, helplessness, anxiety and guilt. Yet, this night-time unpleasantness may, in fact, provide an advantage during the day.

All sleep is not the same. Dreams typically occur in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, when our brains are more active. You cycle between REM and non-REM sleep. First, comes non-REM sleep followed by REM sleep and then the cycle starts over again. Babies spend 50% of their sleep in the REM stage, compared to only 20% for adults. Deep sleep which is non-REM is known for the changes in your body, not your brain; when your body repairs and regrows tissues, builds bone and muscle and strengthens the immune system.

REM sleep is crucial for mental and physical health, yet we generally slough off the dreams as being silly, juvenile, and self-indulgent and simply get on with our day. Because dreams seldom make literal sense, it can be easier to discard them than to try to interpret them. In fact, according to Alice Robb, author of “Why We Dream,” dreams can help us “consolidate new memories and prune extraneous pieces of information.” Further, they may provide a time for the brain to experiment with a wider array of associations of the facts and outcomes and sometimes help solve problems.

Finnish evolutionary psychologist Dr. Antti Revonsuo studied the perplexing question of why our minds subject us to something so unpleasant. He reasoned that if our ancestors could practice dealing with dangerous situations, perhaps battling a mastodon, as they slept, they might have an advantage when they had to confront them in the next day. Research on animals fits into this theory. REM deprived rats struggle with survival-related tasks such as navigating a maze, while rats with REM sleep apparently dream about this upcoming challenge and perform better.

In 2014 researchers at the Sorbonne interviewed a group of aspiring doctors about to take their medical school entrance exam. Nearly all of the 719 students who replied had dreamt about the exam at least once beforehand and, understandably, almost all of those dreams were nightmares. They had dreamed that they got lost on the way to the exam facility, that they couldn’t understand the questions and that they had written their answers with invisible ink. Ouch. But, when the researchers compared the results of the exam with dreaming patterns, they found that students who dreamed more often performed better in real life.

Ms. Robb suggests that, while we tend to focus on and discuss dreams that are strange, most dreams are less bizarre than we think. A study in the 60s by psychologist Frederick Snyder of 600 dream reports showed that “dreaming consciousness” was, in fact, “a remarkably faithful replica of waking life.” He found that 9 out of 10 dreams “would have been considered credible descriptions of everyday experience.”

In another study, Dr. Revonsuo and Dr. Christina Salmivalli, analyzed hundreds of dreams from a group of their students and discovered that the emotions in the dream were usually appropriate to the situation, even if the situation itself was unusual. “The dreamer’s own self was ‘well preserved.’” Effectively, even in dreams, we know who we are.

So, go ahead and get a good night’s sleep tonight and look forward to the REM dreaming phase. It may feel negative and not be all that comfortable. However, it just might give your brain some time to work through some important matters and find solutions.

“The Two Most Powerful Warriors are Time and Patience”- Leo Tolstoy

 

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Good investing can be boring, yet effective! Specifically, investors with a long investing timeline should build a diversified, low-cost portfolio with an appropriate asset allocation and stick with it. Rebalance regularly to sell high and buy low. Don’t try to time the markets by getting in and out. Yes, this is boring, particularly with the volatility we are enduring, but it’s what it takes to generate solid returns over the long haul. Patience and time are powerful warriors and our friends.

Take a look at the average risk and returns for various asset styles over the last 20 years, which includes the 2008-09 financial crisis and 2018. The best performers, with higher returns and lower risk, are in the upper left hand corner:

 

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Bonds have relatively low risk and have produced decent returns over the period, particularly the first 15 years. Small cap and mid cap stocks have outpaced large cap stocks (e.g. Dow Jones and S&P 500) over time, with better returns and similar volatility (risk). Non-US stocks have trailed US stocks. Emerging markets stocks have produced very good returns, but with larger volatility swings. REITs have produced a 10% annual return with a risk factor about equal to U.S. stocks. The diversified composite “12 Index Portfolio” has produced a nice return of 6.8% annually (better than large cap stocks with 5.6%) with about 2/3 the risk of stocks.  Please note that during this 20 year period, the inflation rate was 3.2% per year. So, the 12 Index Portfolio produced an annual “real return” of 3.6% over the last 20 years.

Investors get in trouble when they lose faith in the markets and their allocation, react to the current market pain and go all cash or move to the “hot” asset classes for better returns. That approach generally ends badly for investors as the markets will correct themselves over time (as we have seen December 2018 losses recovered in January 2019) and hot asset classes go “cold” as the pendulum swings to the next “hot” asset style right after they jump in.

The 12 Index portfolio in this chart is composed of all the asset styles shown, equally weighted. Overall, this allocation is 50% equities, 33% fixed income and cash, and 17% alternatives; what we would term a “balanced asset allocation,’ appropriate for a “balanced risk profile.”

This balanced allocation will never be the top performer in any year. And, it won’t be the worst. It is designed to deliver middle-of-the-road, steady returns. Patience and time produce the results.

Investors need to also understand that time is their friend. “Time in the market beats timing the market.” Here’s another chart showing the growth of $1 since 1990, all invested in the S&P 500:

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The black line represents an investor who stayed in the market every day and turned her $1 into $14. The red line represents the investor who missed the 25 best days (roughly one a year) and turned her $1 into $4. The gray line represents the return an investor could have received by simply investing in five-year treasury notes, turning $1 into $4.

Getting out of the market is easy; getting back in at the right time is very difficult. In the last couple of months, for example, the equity markets (using the MSCI AC World Index) are about level from December 1, 2018 until last Friday, February 8th. However, if an investor got cold feet and got out in mid-December and waited to get back in until mid-January, they would have lost 3.5% on their equity returns. Timing the market is not a good idea- unless you own a crystal ball, can implement perfect end of day execution on buys and sells, have no transaction costs, and don’t mind paying taxes on realized gains.

Patience and Time are two powerful warriors-they are your friends. Let them do the heavy lifting.  Invest for the long-term. Yes, slow and steady wins the race. It may not make for great cocktail conversation, but boring investing can be very effective.

Biases: Fluid & Fuzzy vs Rational

In a perfect world, we would all make optimal decisions that would provide us with the greatest value and satisfaction.  In economics, the rational choice theory states that when you are presented with options, you would choose that which maximizes your personal satisfaction.  This theory assumes that you make your decision by weighing the costs and benefits, without emotion and external factors.  If it were only that simple.

Enter behavioral economics.  It draws on psychology and economics to try to explain why people sometimes make irrational decisions, i.e. not following predictions of economic models based on a consistently rational, self-interested, and “utility” maximizing approach?  Psychology explains this deviation of behavior from what is expected rationally to be caused by “biases.”  Common examples of biases include:

  • Anchoring- relying too heavily on one piece of information
  • Confirmation-focusing on information that confirms one’s preconceptions
  • Endowment-demanding much more for something owned than what you would be willing to pay to acquire it
  • FOMO- Fear of missing out- paying too much to get into the “game”
  • Loss aversion- valuing the pain of losing twice as much as the satisfaction of making a gain
  • Normalcy- refusing to plan for a potential disaster that has never happened before
  • Recency- predicting the future results by expected recent results to continue

Koen Smets’s recent article in the Behavioral Scientist “There is More to Behavioral Economics than Biases and Fallacies” defines behavioral economics as the field that confronts us with our deeply potentially irrational selves.  “We are bamboozled by biases, fooled by fallacies, entrapped by errors, hoodwinked by heuristics, deluded by illusions.”  Ouch.

This brings to mind Ebenezer Scrooge’s question of the Ghost of Christmas Future:  “Are these signs of things that will happen or may happen?”  Perfect question, Ebenezer.  Actually, there is a widespread misconception that biases explain or even produce behavior.  Biases merely describe behavior that may or may not be followed.  They are simply labels for an observed behavior that contradicts traditional economics’ simplified “rational” expectations.

The conversation about biases is generally negative:  they interfere with our decision making or undermine our health, wealth and happiness.  For example, consider loss aversion.  Ten of thousands of years ago, humans were more concerned about losing a week’s food supply than gaining an extra week’s.  Today, an individual might never invest their cash because of a fear of losing money and have the purchasing power of their funds decreased by inflation.  This loss aversion is part of our evolutionary DNA, but that doesn’t mean that we have to exhibit that behavior.

Biases are tendencies that are not uniformly shared or employed.  Mr. Smet describes human behavior as “fluid and fuzzy.” These days, speed and simplification are keys and behavior based on biases is increasing.  Knowing that people are taking shortcuts, marketing has really stepped up its game.

“Heuristics” are really becoming huge. They are the various techniques we use to solve problems, learn or discover by using shortcuts.  Persuasion heuristics save us time and effort in making many of the hundreds of decisions we are confronted with each day.  Robert Cialdini, author of “Persuasion and Marketing” and political consultant, offers six key principles to persuading (or perhaps hoodwinking) a consumer using heuristics:

  • Authority-the voice or face of authority drives results. (Celebrity endorsements work)
  • Commitment and Consistency-consistent follow through establishes trust (Repetition works)
  • Scarcity-create hype based on time limits and expirations. (I see this every time I go to book a hotel room)
  • Liking-people are persuaded by others liking something. (Tripadvisor)
  • Social Proof- Show evidence of results. (People like to hear positive statistics-whether or not they are true)
  • Reciprocity-Offer discounts, free trials, sample products (people tend to “return a favor”)

We know biases exist. Some of them are in our DNA; some we learn over time.  At the same time, people and companies are aware of these potential biases as they are marketing their products, services, or suggestions.  Certainly, for many small decisions we need to make every day, there is no problem with taking a shortcut and even employing a bias.

However, when it comes to really important decisions, such as your wealth and happiness, it’s time to step up your game and move from fluid and fuzzy to rational.  These very important decisions generally take more time and require more due diligence.   You need to make sure you thoroughly and objectively understand and investigate choices and understand the likely risks and rewards of each.  To keep yourself “bias-free” at these times, you may benefit from having the expertise, skill and objectivity of a wealth manager like DWM who works with these important matters every day.  There’s a time for fluid and fuzzy and a time for rationality.  We’re here to help you when it’s time for rationality. Give us a call.