Many of the decisions that investors typically make are way beyond their circle of competence. That’s the view of GREG DAVIES, Head of Behavioural Finance at Oxford Risk.
In this interview, Gregg addresses two of the most prevalent behavioural biases investors are prone to — overoptimism and overconfidence — and argues that investors need to be much more realistic about which decisions they are sufficiently competent to make.
Greg’s specialist expertise is in improving financial decisions through behavioural science. As well as holding a PhD in Behavioural Decision Theory from the University of Cambridge, he’s an Associate Fellow at Oxford’s Saïd Business School and a lecturer at Imperial College London.
Greg Davies, in your view, how much of a problem do overoptimism and overconfidence pose to investors?
A lot of investors could be characterised as passive-aggressive. They’re passive in the sense that they leave far too much of their wealth doing nothing for far too long, and with the wealth that they do put into the market, they are aggressively trying to do something to it at any given moment. When you’re trying to do something to your investments, then overconfidence and overoptimism becomes a problem.
We all start to believe our own stories. For example, I read something in the newspaper, it resonates with me, I ascribe to it immediate and great confidence, and so I act on it. If we’re overconfident, we’re acting on stories that we shouldn’t be acting on, where we simply aren’t justified in having that level of confidence to do anything.
You mentioned newspapers there. To what extent are these behaviours encouraged by what we read in the media?
We ascribe information to things that we want to believe, so things that resonate with us we will start to believe more and more in. People will pick up and listen to all manner of things, including horoscopes at the extreme. No one ever acts, by the way, on numbers; no one buys return trade-offs. What we buy are stories, and stories come with a degree of comfort attached to them. If I have a story that is intelligible to me, if I understand it, if it just seems intuitively right, then it creeps past my guard, and the minute it is past my guard, it becomes something that I’m comfortable believing and something that I want to believe and so I become overconfident in it.
How then should investors view fund or share tips or other recommendations they read about in the money pages or on the internet?
If you were to look at all the possible decisions in front of you, some of them will be things where you genuinely have the knowledge to tell whether it’s a good or a bad decision. Warren Buffett talks about things being within your circle of competence. But some of the decisions in front of you will not fall in your circle of competence. They will be on the fringes of your competence. You might think you know something about them.
The more decisions you make, the larger the proportion of decisions that aren’t going to be in your core sphere of competence. They’re basically decisions in which you’re just going to be rolling the dice. If we’re trying to make good decisions in investing, after fees and after all the noise in the markets, we shouldn’t be rolling the dice on marginal things. We should be acting only where we really have confidence and competence.
A simple solution, surely, is for investors to make fewer decisions and just do less?
Depending on who you talk to, people will have a different answer to the question, How much should you trade to do well in the markets? There are people at one end of the spectrum who will say their favourite holding period is for ever, and here are some people who think you have to trade a lot. Wherever you are on that spectrum the right answer is less than you think it is. However much you are inclined to do, a sensible investor always does less than that.
The problem is though that it can be very tempting to try to time the market. It’s sometimes very hard to do nothing.
When markets are going up and down, it normally feels uncomfortable for us to do nothing, not to react when it seems intuitively right to do so — for example, when the market is falling and you want to get out. It’s actually very difficult for us not to act on those sorts of things. The fact is though that this is the area where overconfidence manifests itself most extremely — our tendency to think we know where things are going next. In any short or medium time frame, the simple answer is that we do not know.
The simple answer is, don’t do it. Focus on time in the market rather than timing the market. But it’s one of those things that’s simple but not easy. It’s simple to say it, but when it comes to that moment, it’s normally very emotionally uncomfortable for us not to act on what we feel to be strong information, so we jump in.
There’s an example from animal behaviour, isn’t there, that you like to use to illustrate the value of staying in the market. Talk us through that.
Yes, it’s from a study involving pigeons. You put the pigeons in a cage and they learn to peck a red light or a green light. When they peck the red light, it delivers food with a probability of 40%, and when they peck the green light, it delivers food with a probability of 60%. So these pigeons start to do things we see humans do. It's what’s called probability matching. They actually peck the green light more, because they get the food more frequently. They peck the green light 60% of the time and the red light 40% of the time.
That seems all very smart and clever until you realise you that the optimal strategy is to peck the green light all of the time. Now, interestingly, that 60:40 gap is about the same as you would expect to see major equity indices posting on a monthly basis. About 60% of months the index goes up and about 40% of months it goes down. If we could predict which months it’s going to go up or down, it would be rational to switch between being in the market and out of the market. The fact that we can’t means that we should just keep pecking the green light, because that is the most rational thing to do, unless you have a crystal ball.
We certainly live in interesting times. At the time of writing, nobody knows what’s happening with Brexit. Will a deal be reached to prevent a disorderly exit? Either way, what will be the impact on the UK and European economies? And how will markets respond?
In the circumstances, it’s understandable that many investors are considering reducing their exposure to equities until things become clearer. Investing is a hugely personal matter, and nobody should take more risk than they’re comfortable taking.
However, going to cash is not a decision that should be taken lightly, without serious thought or without seeking the opinion of a competent financial adviser. Regardless of Brexit, there’s a very strong case for keeping your portfolio exactly as it is.
So, if you’re thinking of sitting in cash while events unfold in Brussels, here are ten things need you need to bear in mind.
1. Timing the market is notoriously difficult. The evidence shows that it’s almost impossible to do it accurately with any long-term consistency, and the professionals are little better at it than the rest if us. And remember, you have to be right twice; you might get out at the “right” time and then spoilt it all by mis-timing your re-entry.
2. All known information is already incorporated into market prices. Current valuations reflect everything we know about Brexit and the likelihood of all the different outcomes. Do you honestly know something about Brexit that the rest of the market doesn’t?
3. It’s new information that causes prices to rise or fall, and that by its nature, is unknowable. True, government ministers and officials involved in the negotiations may be privy to vital information, but they’re bound by insider trading regulations so can’t act on it anyway.
4. New information is incorporated into prices within seconds, even milliseconds. If there is a significant development over the coming months, it will be absorbed so quickly by the markets that by the time you get to act on it, prices will either have risen or fallen already.
5. Correctly predicting the outcome of the Brexit negotiations won’t, in itself, be of help — unless of course you bet on it. To profit on the financial markets, what you need to do is predict how those markets will respond to the outcome you’re expecting, which is extremely hard to do.
6. Markets often react to big political events in unexpected ways. When an event is widely considered to be negative, markets often wobble initially but then recover and resume the course that they were already on. That’s exactly what happened after the Brexit referendum in 2016 and Donald Trump’s election later that year.
7. Investors typically allow their own political views to influence their investment decisions. Because most of us are prone to confirmation bias and to negativity bias to some extent, our expectations of what will happen if things either go our way or don’t go our way tend to be exaggerated.
8. The idea that there will soon be clarity over Brexit and markets will “return to normal” is unrealistic. It may well be that a deal is reached soon that takes Britain out of the European Union. But, as everyone knows by now, the divorce will be hugely complicated, and it may take many years, decades even, before the lasting effects of Brexit are clear.
9. Important though it is, Brexit isn’t the only show in town. There’s uncertainty everywhere you look, whether it’s the future of President Trump, the prospect of a global trade war or rising tensions between Russia and the West. And those are just the obvious risks. Regardless of whether the UK strikes a win-win deal with the EU that pleases everyone, or there’s a painful, disorderly exit, markets could still fall or rise sharply for a completely different reason.
10. There will always be reasons to bail out of equities. Throughout the long bull run that began in 2009, there’ve been scores of plausible arguments for getting out while the going’s good. If you had heeded any of them, you would have missed out on gains. Will it be Brexit that finally brings the bull market crashing to a halt? The bottom line is that nobody knows.
Again, you have to do what you think is right, and only time will tell what the “right” decision proves to be.
Whatever you do, though, beware of acting on emotions. Assuming that you and your adviser are comfortable with the risk you’re taking, and that your portfolio is thoroughly diversified and has relatively recently been rebalanced, the rational response is to sit tight and watch the political drama unfold.
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iShares offers the most popular London-listed global corporate bond ETF (CRPS). This tracks the Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Corporate Bond Index at 0.20% TER. Its GBP-hedged version (CRHG) understandably costs slightly more at 0.25% TER for the convenience of in-built currency hedging.
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The BMO range has gathered some £117m AUM since launch in November 2015 (inflows of £3m per month on average). This compares to iShares' CRPS size of £824m since launch in September 2012 (inflows of £12m per month on average).
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ZC1G BMO Barclays 1-3 Year Global Corporate Bond (GBP Hedged) 0.17% TER
ZC3G BMO Barclays 3-7 Year Global Corporate Bond (GBP Hedged) 0.17% TER
ZC7G BMO Barclays 7-10 Year Global Corporate Bond (GBP Hedged) 0.17% TER
CRPS iShares Global Corporate Bond (Unhedged) 0.20% TER
CRHG iShares Global Corporate Bond (GBP Hedged ) 0.25% TER
(All ETFs mentioned are UCITS ETFs listed on the London Stock Exchange)
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