Recently, I had the distinct privilege to join Sheinelle Jones on the Today show, discussing some rapid-fire personal finance issues in Simple Money style. Is now a good time to buy stocks? Is it a good time to buy, sell, refinance or renovate a home? We even discussed a version of the Simple Money Portfolio and my top two picks for cash flow apps that can improve your financial situation. Click HERE or on the image below to view the segment.
I love finding financial wisdom in unlikely places, like in art and music. These opportunities are more abundant than you might expect. For instance, the punk-Americana outfit, The Avett Brothers, dedicated an entire tune, aptly titled “Ill With Want,” to the scourge of greed and Mumford & Sons taught us that “where you invest your love, you invest your life.”
The newest melodic metaphor to catch my ear comes from singer-songwriter Jason Isbell. He expresses his appreciation for having work in the title track of his newest album, “Something More Than Free,” but it’s the pair of questions he poses in another song, “The Life You Chose,” that really got me thinking.
“Are you living the life you chose? Are you living the life that chose you?” asks Isbell.
I fear it is the latter for many, if not most, of us. Perhaps we are stuck living a life that has grown into a web of circumstances driven more by external compulsions than autonomous impulsions. For too many, life is lived at the behest of someone else’s priorities and goals, in pursuit of someone else’s calling.
Personal finance is more personal than it is finance. This is a message, grounded in science, that I’m privileged to share in various forms speaking for various audiences. Whether for an association of financial planners, a Fortune 500 company, an academic institution or a non-profit, my strategy is to ENGAGE, ENTERTAIN and EDUCATE your audience, giving attendees tangible takeaways to improve their lives and work.
If you’re interested in having me speak at your upcoming event, you can reach me here:
Unless you made a resolution not to read, listen to or watch the news in 2016, you’ve likely noticed that “the market” is off to a stumbling start. Indeed, one glance at the headlines, at least the ones that don’t involve the presidential election, quickly reveals that the market is having one of its worst starts to any new year. This is a dubious distinction, to be sure.
The factors involved appear similar to those credited for causing the extreme volatility we saw in the fall of 2015—slower growth in China, falling oil prices, geopolitical instability and the threat of bankruptcies in junk bonds. But the optimist’s case seems equally compelling—high-quality bonds (the only kind I recommend) are performing very well, falling oil prices are good for consumers, the Fed’s interest rate rise signals a strengthening U.S. economy and the most recent jobs report was positive.
An objective view of the market reminds us that on every trading day in history, there have been compelling cases to be made for both optimism and pessimism—for purchases or sales. (Remember that every single security transaction involves a buyer and a seller, each of whom believes he or she is getting the better end of the deal.)
Ultimately, there is only one sufficient answer to the question, “Why is the market so volatile?” The market exhibits volatility because that is its nature.
In my hometown of Baltimore, there’s an oft-heard saying that seems especially applicable when, like now, the seasons are changing: “If you don’t like the weather today, just wait until tomorrow.” For whatever meteorological reason, it’s not uncommon for an absolutely miserable Monday to turn into a gorgeous Tuesday. Temperatures have been known to swing as much as 20 degrees inside of an afternoon.
A scientific view of stock market history, unfortunately, shows us an even greater propensity for unpredictability and volatility.
Even the years that we refer to as the “good” ones, in retrospect, test our mettle. For example, between 1950 and 2014, a span of 65 years, the S&P 500 ended the year with a gain 51 times (or in almost 80% of them). Not bad. But in how many of those up years do you think investors would’ve found themselves in a “losing” position at some point in the year?
Every. Single. One.
Then Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein applied the lessons of behavioral economics to everyday life with their book Nudge. The duo nudged so successfully that in recent years, their prescriptions have been put to work in corporate retirement plans—and even public policy—on a global scale.
When I spoke to Thaler to discuss his newest book, Misbehaving, a series of stories documenting the rise of behavioral economics, he told me that he has a message for those who seek to employ his methods:
“Nudge, for good.”
And why does he say that?
“It was totally worth it.” In this case, “it” referred to a Vitamix blender that a friend recently had purchased. He wasn’t the first. Indeed, I don’t know anyone who has purchased a Vitamix blender and didn’t share my friend’s effusive sentiment, even after spending between $429 and $719 (for the new line of G-Series models). For a blender.
But despite my appreciation for these friends and their opinions, I can’t help but notice their errors in judgment, explained by behavioral science, that, if followed, could lead to an unwise purchase for you or me.
To be clear, it’s not their purchase of the blender that I’m questioning. Rather, it’s their insistence that said purchase is a universal must. Worth, you see, is relative. What is “worth it” for you may not be “worth it” for me. Ultimately, determining the worthiness of your next purchase depends on many factors, but chief among them are 1) the joy you receive from using the product, 2) your personal cash flow, 3) how much you will use the product, and 4) the cost of available alternatives.
Do you wince with every headline announcing Greece’s demise, China’s bubble(s), the Federal Reserve’s indecision or the Dow’s down day?
Do you sneak a peak at your portfolio’s performance more than quarterly (or perhaps even annually)?
Does market volatility tempt you to question your investment strategy, even if it’s well thought out and carefully implemented?
Does it weaken your resolve to resist the sky-is-falling siren song heard so frequently in the financial media, or the sales pitch du jour?
Having the right investment strategy is important—really important—and surely contributes to long-term success in building wealth. But no matter how superlative your strategy, it’s your willingness to stick with it that ultimately will help you meet your financial goals.
The most compelling findings regarding financial decision-making are found not in spreadsheets, but in science. A blend of psychology, biology and economics, much of the research on this topic has been around for years. Its application in mainstream personal finance, however, is barely evident. Perhaps a simple analogy will help you begin employing this wisdom in money and life: The Rider and the Elephant.
First, a little background.
Systems 1 and 2
Daniel Kahneman’s tour de force, Thinking, Fast and Slow, leveraged his decades of research with Amos Tversky into practical insight. Most notably, it introduced the broader world to “System 1” and “System 2,” two processors within our brains that send and receive information quite differently.
System 1 is “fast, intuitive, and emotional” while System 2 is “slower, more deliberative, and more logical.” The big punch line is that even though we’d prefer to make important financial decisions with the more rational System 2, System 1 is more often the proverbial decider.
Many other authors have built compelling insights on this scientific foundation. They offer alternative angles and analogies, but I believe the most comprehendible comes from Jonathan Haidt.
“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?
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.