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.
Anthony Anderson is a funny dude. The Emmy-nominated actor has been making people laugh on television and in film for 20 years. But now he’s bringing his sense of humor to a surprisingly unfunny topic—the need for life insurance.
The big question I had for him was: Why? Why, with your career exploding and recent Emmy nomination (for lead actor in the show Black-ish), are you investing time and effort to be the spokesperson for Life Insurance Awareness Month?
“I know firsthand from friends and other family members who’ve never had a policy, who’ve never thought about having a policy. And then all of a sudden someone passes in their family and they don’t know what to do,” Anderson told me.
Fair enough. Many people aren’t even aware of the need for life insurance, and that lack of education is a big concern for Anderson, and a major driver of his dedication to public awareness. But as we continued our conversation, it shifted focus. What it seemed to begin revealing were some of the tragically comic, ridiculous reasons that many people choose not to buy life insurance. Here are the Top 5:
5) I’ve got more important things to insure.
“People insure their flat screen televisions, they insure their cars, they insure jewelry, but they don’t insure themselves,” says Anderson with a chuckle. He’s also evidently frustrated by this reality. “If it weren’t for themselves, they would have none of those things to insure.”
A friend of mine had a lifelong dream of opening up a coffee shop and was willing to put a highly successful career on the line to pursue it. Fortunately, he was presented with an amazing opportunity to test-drive his grass-is-greener ideal, and the results might surprise you and offer guidance that you can apply to your next big decision.
Dave had it all planned out, even down to the lighting and indie musicians that would be playing on Thursday nights in his vision of the perfect coffeehouse.
Then he got an opportunity that most of us don’t have before we make the plunge: He got to learn the ropes working at the best café in Chicago. He immersed himself in coffee culture for a week of training that was nothing short of blissful. Then, he got a chance to put it to work for another few weeks.
His findings? In an average eight-hour day, he got to interact with customers and craft their coffee concoctions for approximately 20 minutes. The remaining seven hours and 40 minutes were spent with dirty dishes. Lots of dirty dishes.
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.