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.

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.”

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.

The Top 10 Places Your Next Dollar Should Go

Originally in ForbesThere is no shortage of receptacles clamoring for your money each day. No matter how much money you have or make, it could never keep up with all the seemingly urgent invitations to part with it.

TOP 10 DOLLAR

Separating true financial priorities from flash impulses is an increasing challenge, even when you’re trying to do the right thing with your moola — like saving for the future, insuring against catastrophic risks and otherwise improving your financial standing. And while every individual and household is in some way unique, the following list of financial priorities for your next available dollar is a reliable guide for most.

Once you’ve spent the money necessary to cover your fixed and variable living expenses (and yes, I realize that’s no easy task for many) consider spending your additional dollars in this order: 

My bad! I was wrong about rising rates and bonds

Originally published CNBC

“I was wrong.”

There are few words strung together that possess such power to free us. In less than a second, we’re able to reconcile the inconsistency between our previous conviction and the apparent truth. Humbling, yes, but also strangely euphoric.

Well, I’ve earned the opportunity to claim said euphoria, as I must confess that I had bought into the most prevalent myth du jour surrounding bond investing. You’ll forgive me, I hope, because this misconception—like all of the most powerful ones—is especially deceptive because it’s grounded in half-truth.

bondpit

Let’s be quite clear: Rising rates simply do not guarantee negative bond returns.

Why Beating The Market Is An Uphill Skate

Originally in ForbesIt is absolutely possible to beat the market, just as I’m sure it’s possible that someone could climb Mt. Everest in a pair of roller skates.

It is so improbable, however, that it’s rendered a fruitless, if not counterproductive, pursuit.

After 16 years in the financial industry and seeing countless great investors eventually humbled by market forces they could not control, I’ve finally relinquished my skates.

Mt._Everest_from_Gokyo_Ri_November_5,_2012

What You Can Learn From Bill Gross And PIMCO’s Troubles

Originally in Forbes“Trouble. Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble.” Reading all the news about Bill Gross and PIMCO, I keep hearing that Ray LaMontagne song in my head. (Go ahead—give it a listen while you read this, just for fun.)

The king of bonds isn’t yet abdicating the throne, but it’s been a rough stretch since PIMCO came down from the mountain to translate the etchings on the “New Normal” tablets. It was, of course, hard to argue the logic in 2009, that U.S. markets would struggle under the weight of a sluggish economy hampered by high unemployment and systemic government debt. But as it often does in the face of supposed certainty, the market defied man’s expectations.

EGO

Allocating Your Most Valuable Asset—You

Originally in ForbesWhat is your most valuable asset? Your home? Not likely, even back in 2006. Your 401(k)? Doubtful, even when it was 2007. No, if you’re not yet glimpsing your retirement years, it’s likely that your biggest asset is you—and not just metaphorically.

Let’s say you’re only 30, with a degree or two and some experience under your belt. You’re making $70,000 per year. If you only get 3% cost-of-living-adjustment raises, you will crest a million in aggregate earnings in just the next 13 years.

Over the course of the next 40 years, over which you’ll almost surely continue working, you’ll earn more than $5.2 million.

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Time Is More Precious Than Money

As the Fed has taught us through the money-printing machine cloaked as quantitative easing, the potential supply of U.S. dollars is limitless. Even for most of us individually, we are capable, to varying degrees, of generating and regenerating money through work, investment and happenstance.

Time, however, is a different story.

Thanks to Emily Rooney for permission to feature her artwork

Thanks to Emily Rooney for permission to feature her artwork

It brings to mind these lyrics: “Where you invest your love, you invest your life,” croons Marcus Mumford in the song “Awake My Soul” on Mumford & Sons’ debut album, “Sigh No More.”

Sure, musicians are notorious for writing lyrics because they sound self-important, or maybe simply because they rhyme, but Mumford has earned a reputation for lyrical brilliance and offers us something deep and meaningful here to apply in our lives and finances.

No matter how much we strive, delegate and engineer for efficiency, there are only 24 hours in each day. We are unable to manufacture more time, and once a moment has passed, it is beyond retrieval.

Of these 24 hours each day, if we assume that we will sleep, work and commute for approximately 17 of them, that leaves us with a measly seven hours to apply ourselves to loftier pursuits. After an hour at the gym, an hour to eat and another hour to decompress with a book or TV show, we’re down to four hours to personally affect those for whom we are presumably working and staying healthy—the people we love.

Our human capacity to love also has its limits.

While not measurable, we can all acknowledge that our capacity to love, in the four hours each day that we have to invest it, is affected by how we’ve invested the other 20 hours. By the “end” of many days, we are just beginning our four hours, and we are already spent. Even if we wanted to, we have nothing left to give—no love left to invest.

I am a chief offender of misallocating my love.

I often allow the four hours I have to give to my wife, Andrea, and two boys, Kieran (10) and Connor (8), to shrink to three, two or even one. In whatever time is allocated, I often serve leftover love, having over-invested myself throughout the day. Then I steal from their time, interrupting it with “important” emails and calls.

I must acknowledge that these are choices I make.

We have the choice to order our loves, to acknowledge the limited nature of time and our own capacity, and to prioritize our work and life.

It’s entirely appropriate to love our work and the people we serve through it. It’s entirely appropriate to love ourselves and to do what is necessary to be physically, fiscally, psychologically and spiritually healthy. It’s entirely appropriate to love our areas of service and civic duty, and to serve well. Therefore, almost paradoxically, it’s entirely appropriate to spend 83 percent of our daily allotment of time in pursuits other than the direct edification of those we love the most.

But what would our lives look like if we engineered our days to make the very most of the other four hours?

Would we have a different job? Would we live in a different house or part of the country? Would we drive a different car? Would we say “no” to some people more and to other people less? Would we invest our time and money differently?

Would you invest your love differently?

I’m excited to be part of a contingent of financial advisors asking these questions of our clients (and ourselves).  We don’t believe that the only way to benefit our clients is through their portfolios, and we believe that asset allocation involves more than mere securities.

This isn’t a particularly new concept.  Indeed, the second phase of the six-step financial planning process, as articulated in the Certified Financial Planner™ (CFP®) practice standards, is to “determine a client’s personal and financial goals, needs and priorities.”  But thought leaders like Rick Kahler, Ted Klontz, Carol Anderson, George Kinder, Carl Richards and Larry Swedroe are persistently nudging the notoriously left-brained financial realm to reconcile with its creative and intuitive side for the benefit of our clients.

With statistics suggesting that as many as 80% of financial planning recommendations are not implemented by clients, it’s officially time to recognize that personal finance is more personal than it is finance.

If you enjoyed this post, please let me know on Twitter at @TimMaurer, and if you’d like to receive my weekly post via email, click HERE.