Short-Term Memory Threatens Long-Term Success

When it comes to investing, rely on long-term wisdom

Originally published CNBCWhen it comes to the market’s peaks and troughs, investors often don’t react as rationally as they might think. In fact, in times of extreme volatility or poor performance, emotions threaten to commandeer our common sense and warp our memory.

Don't Forget --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

It’s called “recency bias.”

What the heck is recency bias?

Recency bias is basically the tendency to think that trends and patterns we observe in the recent past will continue in the future.

It causes us to unhelpfully overweight our most recent memories and experiences when making investment decisions. We expect that an event is more likely to happen next because it just occurred, or less likely to happen because it hasn’t occurred for some time.

This bias can be a particular problem for investors in financial markets, where mindful forgetfulness amid an around-the-clock media machine is more important today than ever before.

Try thinking about it this way. In the high-visibility and media-saturated arena of pro sports, every gifted athlete knows that the key to success can be found in two short words: “next play.”

The “Next Play” Philosophy

They know the benefits of short-term memory loss cannot be understated. And from Little League baseball and Pop Warner football to the World Series and Super Bowl, coaches understand that seemingly “clutch” plays are only possible when a player’s memory is a clean slate.

While sports can (and do) provide a helpful example of memory mastery, this practice is also commonly—and profitably—employed in the world of investing. Last year, for example, diversified investors were dealt a subpar hand as small company and international stock performance lagged behind their large U.S. stock counterparts.

If investors stayed disciplined, however, rebalancing their domestic winnings into their seemingly struggling foreign holdings, they’d have been pleased to see the international cohort buoying their portfolio performance in the first half of this year.

But investors have notoriously short-term memories. This creates a gain-sapping inertia that leads buyers to engage at the top and sellers to exit at the bottom.

Recency Bias + Confirmation Bias = Trouble

Recency bias is further compounded by “confirmation bias,” best described as an investor’s selective memory. Confirmation bias leads us to pick and choose the memories best served to fuel our established narrative.

“I’m waiting to get out of this stock until it gets back to [fill-in-the-blank].”

Really? I have some bad news. Regardless of how you remember the market, you can be sure that the market has no memory of you. The market doesn’t know where you bought that stock or mutual fund or investment strategy, and it doesn’t care when you’d like to sell it.

The market is going to do what it’s going to do regardless of our desires.

The best strategy going forward is simply the best strategy going forward—irrespective of what just happened and how well or poorly you performed. Whether you’re the wide receiver who caught the football in the end zone or the defensive back who just got burned for a touchdown, you’ll be best served to forget what just happened on the last play and make the best decision now, in the present.

But how do we know what that best decision is? We employ our long-term memory or, lacking that, someone else’s.

Trade Short-Term Memory for Long-Term Wisdom

Total amnesia is not the goal. While short-term memory can be our enemy, long-term memory, when informed by adequate education and experience, is our ally. Fortunately, in investing, we have the collective long-term memory of scores of brilliant people to draw on.

The challenge, in this information age, is to sift through heaps of articulate financial content riddled with the recency, confirmation and other biases of others in search of academically vetted, peer-reviewed and actionable content based on long-term memories.

While it may be true that no one is entirely objective, if someone is calling for drastic or urgent action, the chances are good that their directives are highly biased. (And if a free meal is thrown in, you can be sure of it.)

Times like now, when markets are on an extended good (or bad) streak, can put our mental fortitude to the test. Headlines that reek of bias can underscore the short-term memories we’re trying to forget.

Long-term wisdom can fade in its appeal as it is increasingly questioned. Rationality, discipline, balance and diversification are out. Concentration, experimentation, impatience and prognostication are in. But they don’t win.

Duke’s (Unfortunate) Success

Duke’s college basketball team, however, does win.

By way of disclaimer, I’ve never watched a college basketball game in which Duke was playing where I wasn’t rooting for the opposition. It almost pains me to laud them in any context, but I just can’t help it in this instance because Duke’s legendary coach, Mike Krzyzewski, may be the chief proponent of a “next play” philosophy.

Regardless of the circumstances—good or bad, on or off the court—Coach K can be heard peppering those under his tutelage with the refrain, “Next play.”

He says: “You cannot do anything for the last play. Someone who is always looking in his rear-view mirror will never make the most of the current moment.”

Yes, of course, talent, hard work, discipline and experience are all important, but they are minimum requirements for success. Those who excel in sports, investing and life must also have a poor short-term memory.

I’m a speaker, author, wealth advisor and director of personal finance for Buckingham and the BAM Alliance. Connect with me on Twitter, Google+, and click HERE to receive my weekly post via email.

Budgeting Guide for the Rich

Originally in Forbes“You don’t really do this stuff—do you?” The question came from a major network anchor after the camera stopped rolling. The topic was budgeting.

He certainly isn’t obtuse, and he wasn’t being patronizing or condescending. It was a legitimate question that accurately reflects the underlying perception held by most people in any demographic–that budgeting is for those just scraping by and young people just getting started. A tedious chore reserved for those lacking the means to do otherwise. A humble state from which most of us hope to graduate.

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But this is a misconception. In truth, the budgeting process can help people at every stage of life and every income level articulate and align their deeply held values with their financial priorities, which is the first step on the path to integrating money and life. However, there is more to be gained from the discipline of budgeting (at least in terms of raw dollars) for those of means. Better said, there is less to be lost by families who earn especially high incomes. 

The Keys to Effective Budgeting: Autonomy and Automation

Originally in ForbesMost people avoid budgeting because they consider it an exercise in repressive tedium. But it doesn’t have to be. By applying the science of motivation, economic evidence and the art of creativity, the apparent boredom of budgeting and saving can be remade into part a life-giving financial rhythm.

In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink teaches us that most institutions still use outdated science to motivate. Known as the “carrot-and-stick” approach, Pink demonstrates that the archaic addiction many organizations have to extrinsic motivation is far less effective than intrinsic motivation, which comes from within. The most successful resolutions are those autonomously motivated. In short, the word could is more effective than the overused should.

So, please hear this: Only budget if you want to, on your terms. It’s up to you.

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‘The One-Page Financial Plan’—Simple, But Not Simplistic

Originally in ForbesSimple is hot, even fashionable. But in many cases, it’s for all the wrong reasons. Simple is easier to pitch, explain and sell, and therefore also easier to receive, understand and buy. But when simple devolves into simplistic, becoming a one-dimensional end instead of a user-friendly means, it’s no longer an advantage and may actually be doing damage. Not everything can be turned into a tagline, a rule of thumb or a short cut.

Therefore, when my colleague and New York Times contributor Carl Richards first asked me a couple years ago to think about what a financial plan might look like if it was constrained to a single page, I was skeptical. After all, I’d dedicated my life and work to helping people, primarily in their dealings with money, wholly through the written and spoken word. The fullness of that education seemed impossible to responsibly confine to a single page. Then I read Carl’s new book, The One-Page Financial Plan

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At 208 pages, it may be a tad shorter than most personal finance books, but it’s obviously longer than one page. There is, however, a single page in it that I believe will help you understand why the book was written and how it could benefit you. On page 11, toward the end of the book’s introduction, Richards shares with us his family’s first attempt at an actual one-page financial plan.

Putting Money In Its Place

Originally in ForbesWhat we believe about money will impact how we use it. Unfortunately, a central belief most of us hold about money is fundamentally flawed. We believe that money is either good or bad when, in reality, it is neither.

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A belief that money is bad certainly is the minority mindset. But it may be a more dangerous conviction than its inverse, if only because it appears virtuous. After all, how could using less water, less square footage, less medication, less natural resources — less money — be a bad thing? Perhaps because there’s a deceptively short distance between being pro less-[fill-in-the-blank] and becoming anti-[fill-in-the-blank]. And if we’re anti-money, we may also become anti-people-who-have-money, including ourselves if such a circumstance arose.

A friend of mine has a huge heart for people with less — I mean, really less. So much so that he dedicated his life and work to serving them. He regularly goes to the world’s most deprived places, using his powerful combo of empathy, education and experience to rally the necessary aid. Once, when he received a sudden sum of money, I asked him if he was capable of committing financial suicide — by which I meant divesting himself of all the extra decimal places in his bank account — simply because it wouldn’t feel right for him to have such a possession as one so wholly dedicated to the world’s underserved communities. He acknowledged it was possible.

The far more common belief is that money is inherently good. Although this belief appears innocuous at first blush, it’s important to consider its logical conclusion. If money is good, then more money is better. If so, we might be inclined to accept a common lament as true: “If I only had more money, I’d have a better life.” Inevitably, money becomes personified, and thus becomes an unconquerable competitor pitted against the actual people in our lives. In this reality, our friends and family simply can’t compete with money. People let us down, while money only promises to make our hopes and dreams come true.

We need to put money in its place. Specifically:

Money is a neutral tool that can be used for good or ill.

That’s it.

When we believe that money is bad, we typically handle it poorly and strain our relationships. When we believe that it’s good, we tend to put money in competition with people and strain our relationships.

You Can’t ‘Robo’ True Financial Advice

Originally published CNBCThe investing world is a better place, thanks to the advent of well-funded online investment advisory services.

Collectively dubbed “robo-advisors,” companies such as Betterment, Personal Capital and Wealthfront have managed in just a few years to do what the financial industry has failed to accomplish during a couple of centuries: provide quality investment guidance at a cost accessible to most demographics. It is a long time coming.

Adam Nash, Wealthfront’s chief executive, however, isn’t fond of the robo-advisor label.

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The Disciplined Investor’s Worst Enemy: Tracking Error

Originally in ForbesLast year was a tough one for disciplined investors. Disciplined investors know that diversification is a key element of successful portfolio management. But investors who stayed the course and remained diversified were punished for it in 2014, at least in the short term.

Disciplined investors will continue to be taunted over the coming weeks and months by headlines touting the success of “the market” in 2014. “Which market is that?” many of them will ask.

Head in Hands

Well, “the market” we hear about most often is the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which represents only 30 of the largest U.S. companies trading on the New York Stock Exchange. A slightly broader barometer of “the market” is the S&P 500 index, a benchmark tracking 500 of the largest U.S. stocks. In this case, “the market” could more accurately be translated as “the U.S. large-cap stock market.”

2014 Asset Quilt

What is “the market”?  It’s actually a host of different markets in reality.  Pundits may entertain us with their prognostications, but one glance at this asset class quilt makes it abundantly clear that attempts to pick the next winner are in vain–or worse yet, counterproductive.

How to Protect Your Biggest Asset–Your Income

Originally published CNBCYou’ve got a machine just sitting around your house. It’s a money-printing machine, and it’s perfectly legal. This machine is expected to print $75,000 this year before taxes. You’ll use that cash to pay your household expenses.

Each year, the machine will print 3 percent more than it did in the previous year, and it will continue doing so for the next 40. That means, over its lifetime the machine will print $5,655,094.48, easily making it your most valuable asset today.

Yet there it sits, maybe in your garage, between an inherited set of golf clubs and a wheelbarrow with a flat tire, unprotected. Uninsured.

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The machine, of course, is you, or more specifically, your ability to generate an income. It didn’t come cheap. You and your parents invested years of training and likely tens of thousands of dollars in hopes that your machine would not only support you financially for a lifetime but launch another generation as well.

We don’t question the need to buy insurance for the things our money machine purchases. But few of us know if—or at least how and to what degree—their income-generation engine is protected.

Do you?

A 4-Step Process to Integrating Money and Life

Originally in ForbesOnce you’ve abandoned the pursuit of balancing money and life in favor of integrating the two, the question still remains: Now what? How the heck do I better integrate money and life? Like most personal finance dilemmas, the answer is simple, but not easy.

It’s simple because it doesn’t require many steps. What’s more, it’s advice you’ve likely heard before, perhaps multiple times. But it’s challenging because you have to do some work—interior work. And then you have to make some difficult decisions.

money&life integration

Before I share the process, it’s imperative that we recognize a fundamental financial truth, often shrouded in a sea of marketing, misinformation and self-help rubbish that’s more sales than psychology.

RULE: Money is a means, not an end. Money is a tool—a neutral tool that is neither good nor evil. It may, however, be used in pursuit of either good or evil, and everything in between. Money can be well-utilized in the pursuit of goals, but it makes a very poor, lonely goal in and of itself.

Understanding—and believing and applying—this rule is the aim of the following systematic four-step approach to better integrating life and money: