Thursday, May 26, 2011

Our Instincts are Never Wrong: Until They're wrong

It has been decades since behavioral economics took hold as a science of investor actions. Designed to study the irrational decisions that we all are apparently hard-wired to make, the field grew into a respectable and well-quoted discipline. Which is fine. We know we have incredibly limited potential to redesign ourselves, despite the pushing and prodding in one direction, the look-in-the-mirror study of our own foibles and the instructions on how to improve this very human lot in life. But we muster on. And this is why, even despite the improved access to our 401(k) plans does our retirement still suffer.
Studies done quite recently suggested that most folks will simply accept the status quo if given a confusing situation. Investing is just such a case-study in chaos, less so for the experienced investor, but even for that group, a churning pool of information keeps them struggling to keep up. But the behavioralists  insisted that auto-enrollment in a retirement plan would create great strides for the plan and even greater rewards for those who may have - and still do have the option of - opting out.

Auto-enrollment we have found out is a trip through the wardrobe. We may all have taken the first step. But what awaits us on the other side, in almost every instance, is our irrational mind. And in almost every instance as well, a less-than-wonderful 401(k) plan. But more on the plan later. Let's just focus on what we have done recently as we embrace our biases, follow our illusions and believe in the fallacies.

There have been several alarms ringing on Wall Street and those who invest in mutual funds have turned a deaf ear. Herd mentality, the primitive instinct to follow the herd because doubt in the face of danger can present death was considered a valuable possession. Somewhere along the line though, things changed.

In our wonderful modern brains, this instinct has evolved into a trait, or so say the behavioralists, the makes us run towards the danger because everyone else is. What once once a survival instinct is now a suicidal tendency, at least in the world of investing. (Look at it this way: It would be similar to seeing a crash on the highway and deciding that driving your car into the pile would be in everyone's best interest, including your own.) Evidence of this is beginning to crop up and our big "modern" brains are at fault.

There are three types of mutual funds or mutual fund investment strategies that have shown a tendency to attract these kinds of investors: emerging markets, commodities and a category I'd be willing to wager you didn't realized existed, floating rate funds. (Amy Or of describes them as "Unlike fixed-rate loans, floating-rate loans can capture rising interest rates and are deemed a good inflation hedge" and with some uncertainty about when if sooner-not-later, interest rates begin to rise, these funds will be able to capture the change in market conditions.

Recent herd-like inflows of over $14B suggest that the usually high load fees and the underperformance of late matter little. It is where, these investors believe they should be. But because, as so often is the case with herds like this, so many have heard the siren's call, the opportunity to make any more moves to the upside have been hampered. That means a lot of people will eventually follow the herd off the cliff, ost of whom bought at the top.

When they aren't betting on debt, they are looking at commodities. These funds, focused on such tangibles as oil, silver and gold will to most of us, seem to be destined to go higher. And if you bought into this sector recently, you have  high hopes that it wasn't at the top. But silver suggested it was, as did oil, and the drop in prices found those same people scrambling to get out. Most bought in with expanded exposure in their supposedly well-balanced portfolios and are now paying the price for having believed that diversity was just another word for profit.

And emerging market investors are beginning to realize that perhaps they too have been failing to listen to the global heartbeat. Europe is not finished with its economic woes. Commodity prices may have fallen but they still remain uncomfortably high for countries looking to emerge and now, predictions of slowing growth at expanding powerhouses like China have begun to worry the savvy investor. You newbies are deeply embedded in the herd still.

You may have been auto-enrolled, but the walk through the wardrobe left you in the middle of the Serengeti. And you probably won't get the memo that you are in danger until it is too late. This thinking about getting you in, attempting to educate you, guide you, slip you into an ill-suited target date fund came by way of Thaler and Sunstein's book called Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness. In is not the same as knowing what to do or how to act when you arrive. The information tsunami hasn't lessened and may have even gained strength over the last several years and investors, particularly the neophytes, will still drown before they learn to swim.

How running with the herd once saved you only to become the complete opposite will remain a mystery. And getting people into these plans by using science to study our unpredictable-ness is still a good idea, even if it seems suspect. But once there, the status quo is good. But who says what the status quo is? You may never get a clear bead on the answer,  Until you realize the herd is leaving the room.

Paul Petillo is the managing editor of and a fellow Boomer

1 comment:

Adam said...

The biggest financial mistake many retirees make is investing too conservatively, which includes a high concentration in bonds. When interest rates rise, and they will, bond prices will drop. Your money needs to stay relevant to keep up with inflation. I agree that investors tend to put their money in the latest popular trends rather than where the market is actually moving.