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,
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.
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky legitimized behavioral economics—the study of how people really behave around money, as opposed to how economists say a rational person ought to behave.
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.
Is recent stock market volatility bugging you?
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.
“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.
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.
“Level is dedicated to rewriting the financial rulebook to create a secure future for the next generation.” That’s budgeting app Level Money’s stated mission, which can be found on their website’s “About Us” page. But even as lofty as that objective sounds, co-founder and CEO Jake Fuentes says the company’s sights are set even higher.
“Basic everyday money management,” he suggests, could be “the first step toward changing—or creating—the next generation’s banking structure.”
An app that hopes to change the way the next generation banks? I’m listening.
Most 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.