Money + Emotion = Less Money

Tyler Linsten Investing, Personal Finance

Or, Why It’s Never Smart to Trust Blanket Statements, Built upon Emotional Bias, on Investing

When it comes to allocating savings (aka Investing), a surprising amount of reward will come from the decisions you don’t make. Not sure what to do? Try doing nothing.  In most instances nothing is very much something. Markets should be considered to be one of the most manipulative, conniving and destructive forces in existence – and guess what, the psychological/behavioral interference they create have a direct line to the levers you pull when making important decisions about your money. Needless to say, this is a very dangerous combination. Hence, the title of this post: Money + Emotion = Less Money.

Even the smartest participants will inevitably make wrong decisions at the absolute worst times. The best traders/investors are not immune, they’re only marginally better at containing their fallibility to Mr. Market’s brutal ways. If you think you’re set up to lose at a casino then try taking the same setup and add your entire life’s savings in chips on the table, the players seated next to you are whispering conflicting advice in each ear, the dealer is slowly stealing chips from you as you look away and, oh yeah, someone just incited panic by setting off the fire alarm. Try making the right decision under those conditions at the casino. That’s the market. The only way to survive is by sticking to your plan and sitting on your hands until the right cards present themselves.

Charlie says it best.

We are over five years into an unrelenting bull market. Five years of gains for bulls and five years of losses for those who didn’t participate has surely created plenty of behavioral bias in both groups. The winners are likely thinking very highly of themselves (overconfidence) and the losers are waiting with bated breath for the next correction so they can say they told us so (confirmation bias). Each bias is dangerous and each is guaranteed to be costly.

Taking recent results and extrapolating them far into the future is not a new concept but I’ve recently seen a few articles and blog posts regarding active management and efficient markets. The main argument against analysts/managers and for efficient markets is that stocks are now priced so accurately there is no need for individual fund managers or analysts to identify and correct any mispricing.  Sure, it’s a very defensible statement to make after a five year run where “active managers” have been trounced, but does that mean markets are really efficient? Not even close. Markets are made of people. People, especially when it comes to markets, are nowhere near sane operators – especially when there’s money on the line. Not even close. Five years is a blip on the screen when compared to a meaningful timeline. Decades are what count – we must not put too much value on recency.

I’m a huge fan of passively investing via index funds and in no way do I think individual investors should be timing the market or picking stocks for short-term gains. Individual investors should stay away from trying to do too much, but that doesn’t mean the market is efficient. Nor does it mean investors should pile into actively managed mutual funds (I would never recommend an active mutual fund). There is still a place for professional investors to actively manage portfolios for sophisticated clients in need of very specific levels of risk, return or diversification. After all, the stocks in an index have to be priced by somebody.

What happens when emotional bias gets in the way of reason?

Exhibit One: 

No comment necessary.

Exhibit Two:

Jim Cramer’s now-infamous call to pull out of the stock market for five years in October 2008.


In summary, I simply mean to say it’s typically unwise to make, or believe, very bold, blanket statements based on a small amount of data or time. Typically this is emotional bias disguised as careful analysis. Beware of phrases like “never again,” “the new normal,” “XYZ is dead” and/or “ABC is now impossible.” History is always repeating itself, or at the very least it rhymes. This is especially true with financial markets so it always pays to limit exposure to investing pundits/”gurus” and the media interests they serve. Stick to your plan, leave active trading to the pros and approach everything you see with a heavy dose of skepticism.