The Recent Market Decline and Human Behavior

January 8, 2019

Adapted from an article originally written by: Samuel Chattopahyay, CFA

The stock market has been tumbling lately with S&P 500 Price Index declining by 11.76% from its peak on October 5th till the date of this post, and the dramatic media headlines are roiling investor sentiment far and wide e.g. CNBC reported:

“The stock market is on pace for its worst December since the Great Depression.”

An uneasy “fear” threatens to overwhelm human minds during this holiday season. To be fair, the market looks pretty grim and the latest market rout could roll on… or not. But before we get down the stream of feeling to thinking, similar to when we start to feel sick, and eventually believe we are sick; we need to realize that in the world of investing, emotions can cause investors to make sub-optimal decisions. Even the greatest investment strategy can prove to be worthless if a portfolio manager lacks the discipline and emotional fortitude to stay put. Alpha Architect noted that having clairvoyance and an accurate crystal ball would be the only methods to know exactly which stocks were going to be long-term winners and long-term losers, and that advisors were likely to get fired many times during market volatility and severe draw-downs. This is due to investor’s Psychological Myopia, a tendency to think shortsightedly, that leads to terrible timing by assessing relative performance over short horizons. Because we, as human beings, often ignore pieces of information in decision-making processes, it makes us think shortsightedly.

Before behavioral finance came into being, economist Paul Samuelson, offered a bet to a colleague by flipping a coin where the win was $200 if heads comes up or lose $100 if tails comes up. His colleague reportedly turned the bet down because he said, “I won’t bet because I would feel the $100 loss more than the $200 gain”. This is called loss aversion bias, the degree of which could be different from one investor to another. For example, an investor without loss-aversion bias who would put a 50-50 probability of heads or tails from flipping a coin, his loss-aversion utility function is positive e.g. $50 [0.50($200)+0.50(-$100)] whereas an investor like Paul Samuelson’s colleague who might feel the loss 2.50 times more than gain, his expected value is negative e.g.  e.g. -$25 [0.50($200)+0.50(2.50*-$100)]. Given the current outlook, there’s definitely a rising suspicion that global growth is slowing and that various risk factors, including an ongoing trade war between the US and China, may create headwinds in 2019. However, it may not be easy for a common investor to rationalize the facts and even if a professional does, she won’t buy in. For the most individuals when it comes to portfolio decisions under uncertainty, it gets close to flipping a coin with some information e.g. analyzing the risk that the future could deliver more downside surprises, but the opposite is possible as well. Some people tend to react fast in their portfolio and lock in losses if they see a headline, “the next recession is coming in 2019, and with it a bear market loss of at least 40-50 percent.” whereas others may wait too long even if a recession in inevitably apparent to avoid the regret of a bad decision.

The decision making in financial markets is seldom rational as human beings have informational, intellectual and computational limitations. Even if we supplement the human limitations with computers, we still may not be able to make fully informed and rational decisions because our rationality is bounded by our perceptions, beliefs, and judgments.  In reality, investors may react differently for different parts of their portfolio because of mental accounting bias, which leads them to treat investments into “buckets” based on their sources and goals. An investor with high emotional bias and risk seeking attitude with two investment goals e.g. funding college expenses for two kids in 2019 and owning a vacation home in 5 years may react differently to the recent market downturn based on the size of allocation and the probability of meeting those goals.

Advisors are often vexed by their clients’ decision-making process and reactions when it comes to allocating their investment portfolio. In designing a standard asset allocation model with a client, advisors first seek the inputs to a risk tolerance questionnaire, then discuss the client’s financial goals and constraints, and finally recommend the output of an optimized portfolio. Although this process may work well for some investors, it often fails for individuals, who are susceptible to behavioral biases. In a common scenario, a client demands, in response to short-term market movements and to the detriment of the long-term investment plan, that his or her asset allocation be altered.

Instead of adopting a portfolio optimization model that only matches an investor’s age and risk tolerance category, we recommend a Goal-Based Investing Approach along with the elements of Behavioral Finance to identify an investor’s specific goals, risk tolerance and mental accounting associated with each goal, as well as the management of shortfall risks – the risks that the portfolio will fall short of the various goals.

At FDP, clients that attended their fall planning meeting utilized a unique risk analysis software program called “Riskalyze”.  This tool focuses on the “downside risk” potential of portfolios and focuses a client on that potential.  Combining goals based investing with Riskalyze doesn’t necessarily reduce losses, however, a client should never be surprised by the way their portfolio(s) react during a market downturn.   By utilizing these planning processes, clients stand a greater chance of adhering to their investment programs and enjoy better long-term investment results without the risk of what Ben Carlson said:

“Short-Term Thinking with Long-Term Capital”.

As always, we’re available to answer your questions and to be of service.  We wish you and your family a healthy, happy, and prosperous 2019!

Mark Chandik, CEO

Bryan Ugalde, COO


Advisory Services offered through FDP Wealth Management, LLC, a state Registered Investment Adviser. Securities offered through ValMark Securities, Inc., Member FINRA/SIPC.  130 Springside Drive Suite 300 Akron, OH 44333-2431 800.765.5201 FDP Wealth Management, LLC is a separate entity from ValMark Securities, Inc.  FDP Wealth Management, LLC, ValMark Securities, Inc. and their representatives do not offer tax advice.  You should consult your tax professional regarding your individual circumstances.

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