When the stock market falls sharply as it did following the recent Brexit Referendum in the United Kingdom, it is not unusual for investors to react emotionally — to act on impulse before thinking through the potential long-term consequences. Why does emotion sometimes cloud your judgment when it comes to making investment decisions? The answer may be found in the study of “behavioral finance.”
Scholars of behavioral finance believe that investors are too often influenced by psychological or emotional impulses that run contrary to the fundamental principles of long-term planning. But the study of behavioral finance involves more than pointing fingers at past mistakes. Its proponents encourage investors to develop skill in recognizing situations that may lead them to make emotionally driven errors, so those errors may be avoided in the future.
Investor, Know Thyself
Behavioral psychologists have identified several common behaviors that may be exhibited by investors. See if you recognize yourself in any of these examples.
Fear of Regret/Risk Aversion —
The threat of a potential disappointment or a short-term loss is a powerful force that often inspires second-guessing of portfolio strategies. Common responses are to avoid investing altogether, to hold on to a losing stock for far too long in the hopes that it will bounce back one day, or to sell winners too soon — before they may have reached their full potential.
Some investors tend to overestimate their knowledge and skills. For instance, they may overload their portfolio with stocks of a certain sector or geographic region they know well, because they are confident of their ability to understand and track these investments. As a result, they may tend to trade more actively than is in their best interest.
In addition, overconfidence may lead to irrational expectations and, ultimately, to a financial shortfall. For example, the Employee Benefit Research Institute’s 2016 Retirement Confidence Survey revealed that a majority (63%) of workers are “very” or “somewhat” confident that they will have enough money to live comfortably throughout retirement, even though fewer than half have actually tried to calculate how much money they would need.1 In other words, many people may have a false sense of security based on incomplete knowledge of their situation.
This behavior involves reading too much into recent events, despite the fact that those events may not reflect long-term realities or statistical probabilities. For example, investors who believe that a market surge (or downturn) will continue indefinitely may be anchoring their long-term expectations to a short-term perception. Anchoring causes investors to hold on to their investments even after an extended period of poor performance. As we all know, things change. Mental anchoring prevents us from adjusting to those changes
Today’s investor needs a plan of action to help maintain a disciplined strategy and resist making common mistakes. Work with your financial advisor to construct a fully integrated financial plan that reflects your needs and risk tolerance. Such a plan will help you avoid potential pitfalls and stay focused on the long term.
1.Employee Benefit Research Institute’s 2016 Retirement Confidence Survey, March 2016.↩
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