It seems to happen every fall. The stock market is rolling right along, hitting new highs every week or so. And then by September or October something spooks the markets.
Investors who have been ignoring economic warning signs all year suddenly start paying attention. Sometimes when the S&P 500 drops by 5% or so, they make a snap judgment to sell, ignoring the double-digit gains it’s posted so far.
They rely on CNBC to guide their next move. They spend every waking minute agonizing over whether to hang on or bail out.
Millions of people invest this way, on impulse. They worry whenever there is any sign of market turbulence and give in to their fears and then get burned.
We’ve all seen this movie and know how it ends. And who benefits the most? The huge institutional traders on Wall Street.
They profit by capitalizing on the impulsive behavior of Main Street investors. Motivated by the twin fears of “I can’t afford to lose” and “I don’t want to lose out,” these investors routinely buy high and sell low.
And Wall Street cashes in by selling high and buying low. Time after time, year after year.
The inevitable results of these David vs. Goliath trading interactions are so predictable that Wall Street has a euphemism for it: exploiting market inefficiencies. The big traders can predict with razor-sharp precision when regular investors will give in to their fears or greed.
Their analysts get access to the information they need to buy or sell shares of stock at the best price long before this same information percolates down to regular investors.
Here is how to understand and avoid self-defeating behavior.
Emotions are the enemy of investing. When you’re plagued by doubt, you’re more likely to embrace certain thought patterns or superstitions that result in bad decisions. When you’re emotionally biased, you’re less willing to listen to views that could keep you from going down with the ship.
Psychologists have developed a whole field of study to identify these kinds of self-defeating thought processes: behavioral finance.
Numerous studies have shown that anxious investors often see and react to trading patterns that don’t really exist. They develop biases that aren’t easily shaken. And they fail to see the financial forest for the trees.
While hundreds of these behaviors have been researched and catalogued, there are a few that even the most experienced investors will recognize as applying to themselves at one time or another.
Research has shown that investors are much more upset when their portfolio has dropped 5% in value than they are happy when it rises by 10%.
They’re more likely to hold on to a stock whose price is falling in the hope that it will bounce back. And they’re much more likely to sell a stock whose price has risen long before it’s reached its peak.
Even though we consciously understand that a diversified portfolio helps to offset the falling price of one stock with the rising value of another, we still tend to obsess on the outsized profits or losses of individual stocks, regardless of how little overall impact one security has on our portfolio as a whole.
The way certain kinds of information are presented can influence our thinking. For example, when the stock market drops by 10% or more, the media has conditioned us into thinking of it as a market correction, with all of its associated doomsday fearmongering.
But that 10% is just an arbitrary numerical signpost that is no better at predicting a bear market than a 5% drop.
People who have experienced a recent major event tend to believe that a similar event will occur when certain situations preceding the event have occurred.
A good example is the belief that rising rates of COVID-19 infections are likely to trigger a major stock selloff similar to the three-month bear market of 2020.
When investors have a strong belief in a certain company they’ve invested in, they tend to cling to their faith even when the company hits a bad patch. The fall of Enron in the early 2000s is a textbook example.
Even when news about the company’s scandals came to light, too many investors believed Enron would emerge unscathed — and ultimately lost their entire investment.
So how do you avoid financial misbehavior?
It’s critical to increase your financial self-awareness. Recognize the beliefs and fears that drive these behaviors and make a determined effort to think before you act.
Start by diagnosing your financial health. If you feel confident that you’re on track toward saving enough for retirement, your children’s higher education, or other goals, then you’ll be less likely to engage in behaviors that could derail your investment plan.
This can be difficult to do on your own, which is why you might want to seek out the services of a qualified, fee-only fiduciary financial planner.
This professional can help you address your fears, overcome your inertia, and conquer your biases by helping you figure out exactly where you are financially today and what you may need to get back on track. And if you hire them to manage your investment portfolio, you can sleep easier knowing that your financial future is in good hands.