Why the average investor is so bad at it.

Published By StennerZohny Investment Partners+ on July 4th, 2016

 

 

The annual Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behaviour study from financial services consulting firm Dalbar Inc. is a tough read. Not because it’s data-heavy and dry (though it is), but because of its implications.

Every year, the survey looks at U.S. mutual fund inflows and outflows, using these data to calculate the real-life performance experienced by the “average” fund investor over time. It then compares this performance to that of a representative benchmark for a given asset class.

As you can see from the chart, the performance of the average U.S. equity fund investor isn’t anywhere close to the benchmark. That’s not just bad – it’s shockingly bad.

Now, there are good reasons why an individual’s performance might lag the index: Maybe there’s a financial goal an investor has to pay for regardless of market conditions. And of course, fees and transaction costs create a headwind for funds, but not for an index.

Still, these don’t account for the massive performance miss. What does? Behavioural biases. Selling low, buying high; switching to and from funds at the wrong time; chasing “hot sector” performance; unloading core positions to invest in the “fund du jour” – these are actions we take because of hidden prejudices that affect the way we process market information.

Over the past 30 years, I’ve noticed the wealthy tend to be less susceptible to such biases. They tend to be better at recognizing potential biases, as well as controlling the emotions that ultimately lead to them. Here are four examples:

Recency bias

This is the bias that leads us to place a great deal of importance on recent events, and discount or ignore those in the past. We can see this at work when investors pile into and out of positions based on short-term news and current events, without much thought for long-term implications. Case in point: What’s happening right now with the current volatility brought on by the U.K.’s Brexit vote.

Most of the high-net-worth (HNW) investors I’ve met have a keen understanding of market history. Absolutely, they pay attention to what’s going on right now. But rarely do they make that the foundation of their investment decisions.

Confirmation bias

This is the tendency to seek out information that supports our pre-existing opinions, while discounting information that may refute them. Turning again to Brexit, this explains why many investors were caught offguard by the surprise “leave” vote.

Most of the HNW investors I know actively seek out contrary opinions. They do “what if” analyses: what if they’ve gotten it wrong, assumed too much, or overlooked something? Some of them even select members of their advisory team to advocate contrary opinions, to ensure no risk has been overlooked.

Optimism bias

Closely related to the above, this is the tendency to resist information that casts our pre-set beliefs in a negative light. We see this with the reluctance to sell losing positions. Many investors believe that “it will come back,” despite obvious evidence that an investment thesis has changed.

By contrast, HNW investors generally have good selling discipline. No, they don’t like losing money on an idea that didn’t work out. But they don’t let pride or shame get in the way when it comes time to cut their losses.

Social proof

It’s human nature to seek out others who affirm our actions and opinions. And when we see others do something, there’s a natural “pull” to do the same thing. This bias helps explain the “FANGs” (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google – the latter now a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc.) and other hot stocks: The more attention strong stocks get, the more attention they attract from investors who don’t want to miss out.

Most HNW investors I’ve met are natural contrarians. When they learn what the investment crowd is doing, they often want to do the exact opposite. When they identify hot stocks, they want to avoid them – or short them. When they see assets that have been beaten up, they think opportunity. This goes a long way to explaining their consistently superior returns over time.

 

 

Thane Stenner is portfolio manager and director of wealth management of StennerZohny Investment Partners+ within Richardson GMP. He is a founding member and chairman emeritus of TIGER 21 Canada and author ofTrue Wealth. The opinions expressed in this report are the opinions of the author and readers should not assume they reflect the opinions or recommendations of Richardson GMP Limited or its affiliates. Assumptions, opinion and estimates constitute the author’s judgement as of the date of this material and are subject to change without notice. We do no warrant the completeness or accuracy of this material, and it should not be relied upon as such. Before acting on any recommendation, you should consider whether it is suitable for your particular circumstance and, if necessary, seek professional advice. Past performance is not indicative of future results. The comments contained herein are general in nature and are not intended to be, nor should be construed to be, legal or tax advice to any particular individual. Accordingly, individuals should consult their own legal or tax advisors for advice with respect to the tax consequences to them, having regard for their own particular circumstances. Richardson GMP Limited is a member of Canadian Investor Protection Fund. Richardson is a trademark of James Richardson & Sons, Limited. GMP is a registered trade-mark of GMP Securities L.P. both used under license by Richardson GMP Limited.

Having the family ‘wealth talk’: Four tips to remember

Published By StennerZohny Investment Partners+ on June 22, 2016

 

Let me ask you: How much have you spoken to your kids about wealth? I’m not talking about teaching them savings habits or giving them the occasional investment tip. I’m thinking about a family wealth discussion: how wealthy the family is, how much the kids will inherit, and on what terms.

If you answered, “We haven’t,” you’re not alone. In fact, a recent survey from U.S.-based SEI Private Wealth Management reveals a shocking knowledge gap about family wealth, even among some of the wealthiest families in the world.

Its findings: More than 80 per cent of United States, ultrahigh-net-worth parents (average net worth: more than $18-million) haven’t let their children know how much inheritance they will receive. And only 20 per cent of them had given their kids any training, education or coaching on family wealth matters.

Over the course of my career, I’ve heard plenty of reasons for not having the family wealth talk. Many parents want to have the conversation at some indeterminate time – when the kids “grow up,” for example. Others feel anxious that letting children have a full picture of how wealthy they are will damage the kids’ work ethic. And then there are a few who believe that the subject isn’t really any of their kids’ business.

This can be a significant predictor of future financial disputes within the family. I’ve seen more than a few family wealth “horror stories,” and while no two of them are exactly alike, the common thread is almost always incomplete or ineffective wealth communication.

The fact is, learning how to live with wealth is like learning a new skill: It doesn’t come as soon as you reach a certain age, or when you land your first job, or get married, or buy your first home. It comes through hard work and practice over time. Here’s how parents can make sure their kids acquire that skill.

Find ‘money moments’

Many high-net-worth families I meet don’t have a problem talking to their kids about wealth, but they’re unsure about how or when they should start the conversation. Alternatively, they can feel that such discussions needs to be structured, or planned, in a formal way.

There’s nothing wrong with a structured discussion. But that’s not the way wealth works in our lives. Most of the time, our knowledge of how wealth works (and how it affects our lives) happens in spontaneous moments, as we navigate through life events that touch upon money and personal finance in some way. Learn to make the most of these money moments. For example, a child’s wedding might be a good time to talk about transitioning wealth to the next generation; the birth of a grandchild is an excellent time to discuss wills and estate planning.

Over time, these smaller, in-the-moment, conversations will serve to highlight family wealth values, and open up further conversation.

Dialogue, not monologue

I’ve met many people who treat family wealth discussions as a monologue: The older generation tells other family members what they’re doing, without giving the younger generation an opportunity to voice opinions, express concerns or effect change.

At best, this is a missed opportunity. At worst, it sends a powerfully negative message to your heirs, showing them that their input isn’t valued, and reinforcing old family hierarchies that can so often be the source of friction.

Rather than declaring what your wishes are and assuming everyone will go along with it, try engaging your heirs in a dialogue. Encourage them to ask questions. Listen to their concerns. Get their perspectives. You don’t have to agree on everything, but simply by changing the structure of the conversation, you can go a long way to smoothing out potential conflicts before they happen.

Be open to new ideas

When it comes to transferring wealth from one generation to the other, parents may have a firm view of what they want to accomplish. But that shouldn’t invalidate new ideas from the younger generation. Taking a “my way or the highway” approach when it comes to passing on family assets is almost certainly a recipe for resentment and hostility.

Always remember: The key word in family wealth is “family.” That means being open to improvements and considerations given to other members of the family, and understanding that their ideas may be different from your own.

Play the long game

A lot of families treat wealth communication as a “one-shot deal.” In their minds, talking about wealth is something that happens infrequently – once every several years at most, in which family members come together for a roundtable discussion on a variety of topics, and then largely put the issues aside and get on with life.

Don’t get me wrong: Some conversation is better than no conversation. Still, communicating about family wealth is something that should happen over time. Ideally, the conversation should be organic – something that grows, develops and changes over the years to adapt to changing financial and family circumstances. Like much of wealth management, communication isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon that requires a disciplined, steady pace to succeed.

 

The opinions expressed in this report are the opinions of the author and readers should not assume they reflect the opinions or recommendations of Richardson GMP Limited or its affiliates. Assumptions, opinion and estimates constitute the author’s judgement as of the date of this material and are subject to change without notice. We do no warrant the completeness or accuracy of this material, and it should not be relied upon as such. Before acting on any recommendation, you should consider whether it is suitable for your particular circumstance and, if necessary, seek professional advice. Past performance is not indicative of future results. The comments contained herein are general in nature and are not intended to be, nor should be construed to be, legal or tax advice to any particular individual. Accordingly, individuals should consult their own legal or tax advisors for advice with respect to the tax consequences to them, having regard for their own particular circumstances. Richardson GMP Limited is a member of Canadian Investor Protection Fund. Richardson is a trademark of James Richardson & Sons, Limited. GMP is a registered trade-mark of GMP Securities L.P. both used under license by Richardson GMP Limited.

How margin debt can predict investor overconfidence

I’ve been working in the investment industry for 28 years now. Throughout that time, I have yet to find the “secret” to investment success – the one thing you can do to guarantee outstanding performance. I don’t know anyone else who has either. It is a combination of many important factors.

 

However, I have found the secret of what I might call “unsuccess” – the one reason, more than any other, why some investors (including some very wealthy, very smart investors) don’t do as well as they should; the one thing you can do to guarantee underperformance.
 

And that is: overconfidence.

 

Overconfidence in your investment thesis – that an opportunity will play out exactly as you think it will. Overconfidence in your predictions – the belief that you have the right “read” on the market, or the economy, or a given financial event. Overconfidence in your particular point of view – that you don’t have to revisit or reconsider your strategy, or hedge or diversify your portfolio because you’ve considered every possible contingency.

 

Over the years, I have seen more financial disasters – both personal and “macro” – caused by overconfidence than by any other reason. Looking back, we can see that overconfidence in U.S. residential real estate is the reason we went through the 2007-08 U.S. financial crisis. Back in 2001, overconfidence in the New Economy (dot-coms and other high-tech stocks) caused the Nasdaq Stock Market bubble to burst. And I’m pretty sure that whatever crisis we face next, the root cause of it will be overconfidence.

 

That’s why I like to keep a very close eye on measurements of market confidence. The idea is simple: The more confidence there is, the greater the possibility that investors are being overconfident, and the more likely there will be some form of correction or pullback in the near future.

 

There are many different statistics and surveys and formulas that track confidence. But the one I like most is the level of margin debt. It’s a little different than other measures in that the figures are already several weeks old when they’re published. But it’s a reasonable leading indicator when considering the next 12 to 36 months.

 

What I like is that margin debt isn’t subjective – it doesn’t rely on what investors say about confidence, but rather what they do. Borrowing to invest is the ultimate expression of confidence: The only reason you do it is because you think the market is going up.
 

Over the past 20 years, margin debt has had a strong positive correlation with stock market returns. When margin debt gets high, chances are that a contraction is around the corner.

 

So, what is margin debt telling us right now? Well, margin debt as a percentage of gross domestic product recently peaked at about 2.8 per cent of U.S. GDP. Over the past 20 years, this figure has crossed over the 2.5 per cent threshold two times. In both cases, the U.S. market dropped 45 per cent to 50 per cent soon after.

 

Take a look at the accompanying chart, which tracks the growth of margin debt on the New York Stock Exchange against the compounded growth of the S&P 500 (reflected by SPDR’s S&P 500 ETF).

 

Two things immediately jump out to me

.

Margin debt is high by historical measures

 

Extremely high. Yes, things have backed off since topping out earlier this year, but such a high level of margin debt still poses a significant danger if interest rates were to rise, or if any economic data come along to suggest the Fed may be forced to raise rates more quickly than expected.

 

We’ve seen this before

 

The pattern that’s developing seems ominously similar to 2000 and 2007-08. In each case, margin debt reached a new high, and then declined right before a significant downturn. You can see this most clearly prior to the two recessions, but also in a number of “mini-dips” (in 2010, and the end of 2011).

 

Now, as any veteran investor knows, the past is never a perfect predictor of the future. Even so, the similarity in the pattern suggests to me that it’s time to take profits and reduce margin (and other debt). This is probably not the time for high-risk/high-return situations – better to rein in speculative positions and approach new opportunities with a hefty dose of caution. This is what the smart money has been doing for some time.

 

Don’t get me wrong: There are still opportunities out there. But you need to be very selective about them. They are contrarian in nature, with deep value, out-of-favour assets that require discipline and patience, and a careful “what if” analysis.

 

Always remember: Margin or leverage is like jet fuel. It amplifies the thrust of the market direction, either up or down. After 6 1/2 strong years, the data are suggesting that it’s time that investors pull the throttle back.

 

 

The opinions expressed in this report are the opinions of the author and readers should not assume they reflect the opinions or recommendations of Richardson GMP Limited or its affiliates. Assumptions, opinions and estimates constitute the author's judgment as of the date of this material and are subject to change without notice. We do not warrant the completeness or accuracy of this material, and it should not be relied upon as such. Before acting on any recommendation, you should consider whether it is suitable for your particular circumstances and, if necessary, seek professional advice. Past performance is not indicative of future results. The comments contained herein are general in nature and are not intended to be, nor should be construed to be, legal or tax advice to any particular individual. Accordingly, individuals should consult their own legal or tax advisors for advice with respect to the tax consequences to them, having regard to their own particular circumstances. Insurance services are offered through Richardson GMP Insurance Services Limited in BC, AB, SK, MB, NWT, ON, QC, NB, NS, PEI and NL. Additional administrative support and policy management are provided by PPI Partners. Richardson GMP Limited is a member of Canadian Investor Protection Fund. Richardson is a trade-mark of James Richardson & Sons, Limited. GMP is a registered trade-mark of GMP Securities L.P. Both used under license by Richardson GMP Limited.