Behavioral Finance 101: Irrationality

DanielCrosbyDr. Daniel Crosby, Ph.D., IncBlot Behavioral Finance

In part one of our three part series, we touched on “heuristics”, or the experiential rules of thumb that serve as decisional markers. Part two will discuss a second pillar of behavioral finance, irrationality. But before we can talk about irrationality in any meaningful way, we must define what it means to be irrational.

One of the hallmark difficulties of psychology as a science is that it requires “operationalization” of the subjective variables it hopes to measure. That is, it must provide sometimes-ethereal constructs such as happiness or rationality with a set of parameters that allow them to be measured and interpreted. When traditional economic models were constructed, they needed to account for things such as “utility” that had to be operationalized to be accounted for within the model.

Using the logic of the time, they put forth the seemingly straightforward maxim that a rational investor, homo economicus, would act to maximize utility at all times, with utility being defined as dollars and cents. Basically, economic decision makers would consistently act in such a way that their investment returns would be improved to the extent possible.

5.22.13_Crosby_Blog2This idea of rational investors working to maximize returns had two profound positives that served it well over the many years it enjoyed preeminence: 1. It had intuitive appeal 2. It was easily measured. After all, do not most of us engage in all manner of unpleasantness (e.g., staff meetings) to make a buck? And are not dollars more easily debited and credited than say, units of happiness or some other more vague notion of utility? Resting on these two foundational strengths, the idea of rational, wealth-maximizing investors persisted for decades…until the music stopped playing.

Four hundred years ago, in one of the first speculative bubbles on record, a Dutch commodity traded for 10 times the annual salary of a skilled laborer. In some cases, this commodity fetched as much as 12 acres of prime farmland and even single family dwellings.

The commodity of which I’m speaking is a single tulip bulb.

5.22.13_Crosby_BeFiBlog_2_pic2You see, it was thought that tulips were an investment that would always appreciate in value and were immune to the ups and downs of comparable tradable goods. Fast forward three hundred years to 1925 and you would have heard statements like this from the investment gurus of the day…”there is nothing that can be foreseen to prevent an unprecedented era of prosperity.” Sure there had been disastrous crashes in the past, but this time was different.

It’s comforting to think of New Era mindsets as a relic of the past, a trick of the mind that fooled investors less savvy than ourselves. But as recently as the Great Recession of the past five years and the tech bubble of the turn of the century, New Era Thinking has been more present than ever. In the wake of these most recent crises there has been a dramatic uptick in the acceptance of the fact that investors are simply not rational. Quite the contrary, we engage in a number of irrational behaviors that can thwart our best efforts at financial security. This danger is especially real inasmuch as we remain unaware of their impact.

In 1998, eToys.com, an internet upstart, had sales of $30M, profits of -$28.6M and a total market capitalization of $8 billion. Toy veteran Toy’s R Us on the other hand, had more than 40 times the sales but only ¾ of the total stock value. The advent of the internet was greeted by Wall Street with great enthusiasm, such great enthusiasm that people lost their minds. The thought that the web would revolutionize the way we do business was correct, but the notion that financial fundamentals no longer mattered was not.

5.22.13_Crosby_BeFiBlog_2_pic3Another example of investor irrationality is the belief that our mere involvement with an investment will make it more profitable. A recent study found that people were willing to pay a mere $1.96 for a lottery ticket with 1 in 50 odds if they were assigned a ticket randomly. However, if they were able to choose their number from among the 50, they were willing to pay $8.67 for the ticket. The odds remained at 2%, but the participants agreed to pay over four times more if they could become personally involved. After all, they felt their involvement spelled positive change. It goes without saying that paying four times as much for something with no measurable increase in the probability of success can hardly be called rational.

I could go on, but the point here is not to erode your confidence or create a lengthy list of your imperfections. The point is to heighten your awareness of the potential for irrationality to damage you financially in ways that have a real impact on you and your loved ones. After all, you can’t correct for what you don’t acknowledge. If there is any good to come out of the trillions of dollars in capital that vanished during the bubbles of the last 13 years, it may be that we have been permanently and irrevocably humbled and have a greater sense of the limits of our own rationality. Hopefully we’ve learned our lesson. Hopefully, this time really is different.

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