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.

Does Greece Really Matter?

The Bigger Picture for You and Your Portfolio

Originally in Forbes“Greece is a tiny player in global capital markets. Its default is 100% certain,” says Larry Swedroe, Director of Research for The BAM ALLIANCE and the author of 14 books on investing, including his most recent, The Incredible Shrinking Alpha, co-authored with Andrew Berkin.

“The only question is how much and what they default on,” Swedroe continues. “But with a GNP that is similar to Rhode Island’s, Greece’s default should have little to no impact on the world’s economy, at least not directly.”

So why is everyone so worried?

Greek crisis

Because raging forest fires are kindled from a single, tiny spark. “Greece’s default could trigger a broader contagion, like a run on Portuguese banks or a lack of confidence in the ECU, that may have wider ranging implications for larger economies,” says Swedroe, my colleague.

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.

robo advisor

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.

street signsWith markets entering a period of significant volatility this past week, CNBC was curious what type of discussions I’m having with clients.  I told them, in short, that I’m talking about ways that we, as investors, can benefit from market losses.

Date: October 17, 2014
Appearance: Gaining Through Market Losses – CNBC
Outlet: Street Signs on CNBC
Format: Television

3 Ways To Gain From Market Losses

Originally in ForbesEven if you get your daily news from one of those celebrity tabloid shows, you have probably still heard that the market has been more than a little crazy in recent weeks.

Indeed, the typically overstated “surge” and “plunge” headlines have been less hyperbolic of late, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average burps out daily gains and losses in the hundreds of points. But over the past several trading days, the results have been all red, and since Sept. 18, the market has taken back more than 6% of what it’s given so far this year.

Is this volatility the precursor to another market gutting? Or perhaps it’s just a momentary ebb in advance of a continued upward flow?

The answer is yes.

The market is in the business of rising and falling, and of making fools of those who attempt to predict which it will do next. But be sure that we will feel both the pain of another big drop—perhaps sooner rather than later—and the euphoria of another unprecedented gain.

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Whether this very recent pullback happens to be the beginning or the end of something, most investors have already lost enough to benefit from it.

Benefit? Yes, you did read that correctly. Here are three ways to gain from market losses:

3 Reasons to Avoid ETFs: Advisor

Originally published CNBCExchange-traded funds—commonly referred to as ETFs—are all the rage. While there are several excellent reasons to use an ETF over the seemingly archaic traditional mutual fund, they are not a universally preferable solution.

First, to be fair, let’s review a few reasons why ETFs can be a better solution than mutual funds.

ETFs generally have lower associated costs than comparable mutual funds. This isn’t news, I know, but since costs are one of the few variables over which we have control as investors, I don’t mind flogging this deceased ungulate.

ETFs

The expense ratio is the most obvious cost reduction. For example, the legendarily inexpensive Vanguard 500 Index Fund has an expense ratio of 0.17 percent, while Vanguard’s S&P 500 ETF has a barely noticeable expense ratio of 0.05 percent. This makes ETFs an ideal choice for investors making a sizable, broadly-based, one-and-done purchase.

The Real Danger In Overstating Returns (Like PIMCO)

Originally in ForbesAs if PIMCO needed any more bad press, The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating whether the bond giant “artificially boosted the returns of a popular fund aimed at small investors.” While we should all be attentive to the results of this probe—because I’d bet my lunch money that its implications will be felt beyond just PIMCO—there is an even deeper issue to consider. And this issue has a more direct impact on our individual portfolios and money management choices. The real danger in overstating returns, and indeed the root of most financial missteps, is self-deception.

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“How’s your portfolio?”

Who among us wants to feel like a failure? We’ll generally avoid experiencing this sensation at all costs. So, absent conspicuous success, we permit ourselves to believe that we’ve at least not failed, frequently through self-deception.

Back to School — Back to Financial Fundamentals for 3 Generations

Originally in ForbesAs kids head back to school, adults spanning several generations set their sites on getting their financial house back in order.  What are the most important financial planning considerations in three major demographics—Millennials, Generation X and Empty Nesters?

Millennials:  First things first – Before making any big financial commitments, like buying a house, figure out what you want life to look like.

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  • Are you in a relationship and looking to “settle down,” or do you highly value freedom and flexibility?  If the latter, you shouldn’t be buying a house or committing to a job that is geographically tethered.
  • If you’re in your twenties, the primary factor that will influence your financial success is how well you establish yourself in a career.  Invest in yourself, and that will likely help you invest more money in the future.
  • Save as much as you can in tax-qualified retirement accounts at this phase of life, because once you get settled down and have kids, your expenses will rise dramatically.
  • Don’t default to 100% equity portfolios just because you’re young.  After getting burned by the market crash of 2008, many Millennials got scared away and didn’t benefit from the subsequent market rise.  Your portfolio should likely be predominantly stocks at this age, but consider some fixed income exposure to keep from losing your shirt (and abandoning your strategy) in a downturn.