Teaching Moments: Help Clients Shake the Emotional Hangovers

Sue BerginSue Bergin, President, S Bergin Communications

While the I-make-a-decision-and-forget-about-it approach might have worked for Harry S. Truman, it does not describe the vast majority of today’s investors.

According to our recent Brinker Barometer advisor survey[1], only 22% of advisors clients embrace Truman’s philosophy. The vast majority of clients suffer from emotional hangovers after periods of poor performance. They let the poor investment performance impact future decisions. Sometimes, it is for the better. In fact, 31% of clients made wiser decisions after learning from poor investment performance. Nearly half of the respondents, however, claimed that emotions cloud the investment decision following poor performance.

Bergin_LiveWithDecisions_7.30.14Another recent study, led by a London Business School, sheds light on how advisors can increase satisfaction by helping clients make peace with their decisions. According to the research, acts of closure can help prevent clients from ruminating over missed opportunities. To illustrate the point, researchers simply asked participants to choose a chocolate from a large selection. After the choice had been made, researchers put a transparent lid over the display for some participants but left the display open for others. Participants with the covered tray were more satisfied with their choices (6.30 vs. 4.78 on a 7 point scale) than people who did not have the selection covered after selecting their treat.

While the study was done with chocolate and not portfolio allocations, behavioral finance expert Dr. Daniel Crosby says that it can still provide useful insights on helping clients avoid what Vegas calls, “throwing good money after bad,” and psychology pundits refer to as the “sunk-cost fallacy.”

“Many clients are so averse to loss that they will follow a bad financial decision that resulted in a loss with one or more risky decisions aimed at recouping the money. If you detect that a client is letting emotional residue taint future decisions you should counsel them to consider the poor performance as a lesson learned. This will allow the client to grow from the experience rather than doubling the damage in a fit of excessive emotionality,” Crosby explains.

[1] Brinker Barometer survey, 1Q14. 275 respondents

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are for informational purposes only.

Be The Benchmark

Dr. Daniel CrosbyDr. Daniel Crosby, President, IncBlot Behavioral Finance

If you’re like so many Americans, you probably made a list of your goals for 2014 back in January on New Year’s Eve. Whatever form those resolutions took; whether the goals were physical, financial, or relational, they likely had two foundational elements: they were specific to you and they were aspirational.

More than half way into the year, you may or may not still be on track to meet your goals. But regardless of your current progress, they will stand as personal reminders of the person you could be if you are willing to do the necessary work. As silly as it may sound, let’s imagine goals that violate the two assumptions we mentioned above.

Can you conceive of measuring your success relative to a goal that had nothing to do with your particular needs? What about setting a goal based on being average rather than exceptional? It defies logic, yet millions of us have taken just such a strategy when planning our financial futures!

shutterstock_171191216There is a long-standing tradition of comparing individual investment performance against a benchmark, typically a broad market index like the S&P 500. Under this model, investment performance is evaluated relative to the benchmark, basically, the performance of the market as a whole.

Let’s reapply this widely accepted logic to our other resolutions and see how it stands up. The CDC reports that the average man over 20 years of age is 5’9 and weighs 195 pounds. If we were to use this benchmark as a goal-setting index, the same way that we do financial benchmarks, the average American male would do well to lose a few pounds this year to achieve a healthier body mass index (BMI). Should we then dictate that all American males should lose ten pounds in 2013? Of course not!

The physical benchmark that we used is disconnected from the personal health needs of those setting the goals. Some of us need to lose well more than ten pounds, others needn’t lose any weight and some lucky souls actually have trouble keeping weight on (I’ve never been thusly afflicted).

A second problem is that affixing your goals to a benchmark tends not to be aspirational. The goals we set should represent a tension between the people we are today and the people we hope to become. When we use an average like the benchmark for setting our financial goals, we are settling in a very real sense. No one sets out to live an average life. We don’t dream of average happiness, average fulfillment or an average marriage, so why should we settle for an average investment?

The bulk of my current work is around addressing the irrationality of using everyone else as your financial North Star. Through a deep understanding of your personal needs, your advisor should be able to create a benchmark that is meaningful to you and your specific financial needs. After all, you have not gotten to where you are today by being average. Isn’t it time your portfolio reflected that?

Views expressed are for illustrative purposes only. The information was created and supplied by Dr. Daniel Crosby of IncBlot Behavioral Finance, an unaffiliated third party. Brinker Capital Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor

How Behavioral Finance Can Help You Set and Keep Financial Goals

Dr. Daniel CrosbyDr. Daniel Crosby, President, IncBlot Behavioral Finance

If you’re ever having trouble sleeping, spend some time researching financial goal setting online and you’re sure to be snoozing in no time. It’s not that the advice you’ll find is bad per se, it’s just that it is fundamentally disconnected from an understanding of how people behave. Most resources will give you some great meat-and-potatoes stuff about setting specific, attainable and timely goals. You will nod your head, go home, and forget all about it, doing what you’ve always done before.

If financial goal setting is to be truly successful, it must account for the way in which people behave, including the really stupid stuff we all do from time to time. What’s more, it must be infused with elements that make it motivational, because let’s face it, you’d probably rather get a root canal than lay out a spreadsheet with some dry figures about Set Your Goalsyour savings goals. To help in this important step, we’ve mixed some best practices in financial planning with some truths about human nature that will add a little, dare we say it, excitement into your financial planning process. After all, your financial goals are only as good as your resolve to adhere to them is strong.

The next time you go to set a financial goal, consider the following:

Plan for the Worst – Cook College performed a study in which people were asked to rate the likelihood that a number of positive events (e.g., win the lottery, marry for life) and negative events (e.g., die of cancer, get divorced) would impact their lives. What they found was that participants overestimated the likelihood of positive events by 15% and underestimated the probability of negative events by 20%.

What this tells us is that we tend to personalize the positive and delegate the dangerous. We think, “I might win the lottery, she might die of cancer. We might live happily ever after, they might get divorced.” We understand that bad things happen, but in service of living a happy life, we tend to think about those things in the abstract. A solid financial plan cannot assume that everything will be wine and roses as far as the eye can see.

Picture Yourself at 90 – One of the reasons that we tend to under prepare for the future is that we value comfort now more than we do in the future. Simply put, the further out an event is, the less valuable we esteem it to be. Let’s say I offered you $100 today or $110 tomorrow. Odds are, you’d use a little bit of self-restraint and go for the extra ten dollars. What if I changed my offer to $100 today or $110 in a month? If you are like most people, you’d take the $100 today rather than wait the extra 30 days. The official term for this devaluation over time is “hyperbolic discounting” and it can have disastrous consequences for managing wealth over a lifetime.

Crosby_BeFi_Help_Set_Goals_2After all, if today’s needs and today’s dollars always perceived as more valuable than tomorrow’s wealth and wants, we’ll make hay while the sun shines. While this can be fun in the moment, your older self is not going to be too happy eating Top Ramen every night. One of the ways to decrease our tendency toward hyperbolic discounting is to make the future more vivid. Researchers at New York University did this by using a computer simulation to age peoples’ faces and found that “manipulating exposure to visual representations of one’s future self leads to lower discounting of future rewards and higher contributions to saving accounts.” Basically, if you can picture yourself wrinkly, you’re more likely to save. Making your own future vivid might include having conversations about your future with your partner, speaking with aging relatives or simply introspecting about your financial future.

Bake In Motivation – Daniel Pink’s seminal work, “Drive” is a concise treatise on what he believes are the three pillars of human motivation – mastery, autonomy and purpose. By including each of these three pillars in the financial goal setting process, you “bake in” motivation, thereby increasing the likelihood of meeting those aspirations. Mastery is all about fluency with the language of finance. While you may never be Warren Buffett, achieving mastery is the first step toward staying motivated. We procrastinate what we don’t like or don’t understand. Once you are facile in the language of numbers, you’ll stop putting your finances on the back burner.

The word “autonomy” is derived from the Greek word “autonomia”, the literal translation of which is “one who gives oneself their own law.” Being autonomous does not mean going it alone. What it does mean is having enough of an understanding of financial best practices that you can select financial professionals whose goals and approaches mimic your own. Finally, and most importantly, is purpose. One of the biggest culprits in bad financial planning is disconnecting the process from the things that matter most to the person making the decisions. Coco Chanel said it best when she said, “The best things in life are free; the second best are very expensive.” Financial solvency facilitates all manner of good, from charitable giving to family vacations to funding an education. If your financial goals are intimately connected to things that matter most to you, saving will cease to be a chore and begin to be a joy.

Views expressed are for illustrative purposes only. The information was created and supplied by Dr. Daniel Crosby of IncBlot Behavioral Finance, an unaffiliated third party. Brinker Capital Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor

Planning Fallacy

Dr. Daniel CrosbyDr. Daniel Crosby, President, IncBlot Behavioral Finance

Last November, my wife and I were blessed with the birth of Liam, our second child and first son. My wife, who had diligently prepared for all aspects of the baby’s arrival, had been encouraging me to prepare my overnight “go bag” in the case of an early arrival. As I am wont, I put this final preparation off until the last minute, only preparing a very few basic necessities and wrapping them unceremoniously in a Walmart bag rather than the leather duffel I use for most business travel.

Our son arrived without adverse incident (easy for me to say!) and as we hunkered down for those difficult, sleepless first nights in the hospital, I realized that my preparations had been inadequate. I had forgotten my contacts entirely, brought an outdated pair of prescription glasses and packed only enough clothing for one day following the delivery. Needless to say, the discomfort of those late nights in the hospital was only made worse by my lack of foresight. Not only was I sleepy, as is to be expected; I was also smelly, unshaven and outfitted in yesterday’s rumpled t-shirt. Luckily, the miracle of new life minimized my failure to prepare, but the (seemingly millions) of pictures will always tell the tale of just how unprepared I truly was.

Crosby_PlanningFallacy_4.3.14So how is it that I, an otherwise functional person who had been through this experience once before, was caught so off guard? The psychological term for what I had experienced is the planning fallacy and it is the reason that we are often a day late and a dollar short. In a phrase, the planning fallacy is the human tendency to underestimate the time and resources necessary to complete a task. In my case, the damage was limited to a few unfortunate pictures, but when applied to a lifetime of financial decision-making, the results can be catastrophic.

There are a variety of hypotheses as to why we engage in this sort of misjudgment about what it will take to get the job done. Some chalk it up to wishful thinking. To use my example, I was hoping to be in the hospital just two nights instead of the five we spent when my daughter was born. By packing a small bag, I was willing this dream into existence. A second supposition is that we are overly-optimistic judges of our own performance. Extending this line of thought, I might understand that most couples are in the hospital for three nights but most couples are not as fit, intelligent and strong-willed as the two of us (to say nothing of our exceptional progeny!). A final notion implicates focalism or a tendency to estimate the time required to complete the project, but failing to account for interruptions on the periphery. Sure, it may just take a few hours to have the baby, but there is recovery, eating, entertaining visitors, and the requisite oohing and aahing over the new arrival.

Whatever the foundational reasons, and it is likely there are many, it is clear enough that the American investing public has a serious case of failure to adequately plan. Excluding their primary home value, most Americans have less than $25,000 in retirement savings. 43% of Americans are just 90 days away from poverty and 48% of those with workplace retirement savings plans fail to contribute. Perhaps we think we are special. Maybe we are simply too focused on the day-to-day realities that can so easily hijack our attention. Without a doubt, we may wish that the need to save large sums of money for a future date would just resolve itself. But wishing it won’t make it so any more than wishing for my son’s hasty arrival did. I got off no worse than a few bad pictures and some unsightly hair; those who plan to save for their financial tomorrow’s won’t be nearly as lucky.

Views expressed are for illustrative purposes only. The information was created and supplied by Dr. Daniel Crosby of IncBlot Behavioral Finance, an unaffiliated third party. Brinker Capital Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor

How to Become an Informed Consumer of Financial News

Dr. Daniel CrosbyDr. Daniel Crosby, President, IncBlot Behavioral Finance

Whenever given a microphone and a stage, I take the opportunity to warn investors and financial professionals alike against the harm of keeping too close a tab on the financial news. Since my exhortations to turn off the TV are so roundly ignored, I’ve decided to take a new tack—exchanging media abstinence with “safe watching” as it were. With investors, as with unprepared teenagers, the only sure-fire way to avoid trouble is to leave it alone altogether. However, being the realist that I am, I hope to provide some tips for safe viewing that will allow you to indulge without contracting “media transmitted irrationality.”

Of course, the irony of warning you about the ills of financial media via, well, financial media, is not lost on me. However, the very fact that you are here means that you may have a problem. Gotcha! It is a strange thing that an awareness of current financial events can lead to worse investment outcomes. After all, in most endeavors, greater awareness leads to improved knowledge and results. So what accounts for the consistent finding that those who are most tuned in to the every zig and zag of the market do worse than those who are less plugged in?

Informed ViewingThe first variable at play is timing. I won’t bore you with an extended diatribe on short-term market timing, but the fact remains that average equity holding periods have gone from six years to six months in the last five decades. This national case of ADHD has been precipitated in part by advances in trading technology, but is further exacerbated by the flood of information available to us each day. Unable to separate signal from noise, we trade on a belief that we are better informed than we are.

Another damning strike against financial media is that the appetite for new content flies in the face of investing best practices. Warren Buffett famously advised investors to imagine they have a punch card with 20 punches over the course of an investing lifetime. By espousing this strategy, Buffett encourages a policy of fewer and higher-quality stock selections, encouraging downright inactivity in some cases. Compare this time-tested approach with the demands placed on the financial press. Each night, Jim Cramer picks 10 stocks to pass along to his viewers to help sate the national appetite for cheap investment advice and the erroneous belief that more is better. Cramer has used up his whole punch card before Wednesday, and it’s not because it’s a sound investment strategy, it’s because it sells commercials.

Consumers of financial media who fail to account for these sorts of perverse incentives can feel disillusioned when the advice of such vaunted “talking heads” leads them so far afield. Conversely, a more informed consumption of media can enable each of us to separate wheat from chaff and learn to recognize a bona fide expert from a circus clown in a $2,000 suit. The following tips are a great place to start:

Evaluate the source. Does this individual have the appropriate credentials to speak to this matter or were they chosen for superfluous reasons such as appearance, charisma or bombast?
Question the melodrama. While volatility can be the enemy of good investing, chaos and uncertainty are a boon to media outlets hungry for clicks and views.
Examine the tone. Does the report use loaded language or make ad hominem attacks? These are more indicative of an agenda than an actual story.
Consider motive. News outlets are not charitable organizations and are just as profit-driven as any other business. How might the tenor of this report benefit their needs over yours as a decision maker?
Check the facts. Are the things being presented consistent with best academic practices and the opinions of other experts in the field? Are facts or opinions being expressed and in what research are they grounded?

Financial media is always going to have an angle, but so do you and so does every person with whom you’ll interact. That being so, the best strategy is to become skeptical without being jaded and cautious without being paralyzed by fear. If you found yourself thinking, “Who the hell is this guy to lecture me on media consumption?” you’re off to a good start.

Views expressed are for illustrative purposes only. The information was created and supplied by Dr. Daniel Crosby of IncBlot Behavioral Finance, an unaffiliated third party. Brinker Capital Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor

The Power of Purpose: The Benefits of Goals-Based Investing

Dr. Daniel CrosbyDr. Daniel Crosby, President, IncBlot Behavioral Finance

I recently had the opportunity to speak about how investor behavior is a driver of the future of the financial services industry and the impact that it has when working with clients at the 2014 FSI OneVoice conference in Washington, D.C.

Much of behavioral finance’s departure from traditional financial models centers on the respective approaches’ vision of what constitutes “rational” behavior. Traditional approaches take a simple, objective approach—rational behavior is all about optimizing returns. Through a behavioral lens, rationality takes on a more subjective view and could be construed as making decisions consistent with personal financial goals. The behavioral approach is constructivist, in that the client sets the parameters for rationality through the articulation of personal goals. But by drawing out the financial goals of their clients, advisors do more than simply highlight a finish line; they actually catalyze a positive behavioral chain reaction.

Consider the followings ways in which having deeper conversations about client goals might make your job easier and improve your clients’ behavior:

Crosby_PowerofPurpose_3.6.14Purpose increases influence – The reasons why successful advisors are highly compensated and most trainees burn out within a few years are one in the same–selling is difficult. All too often, advisors are selling the wrong thing, focusing on the “What?” instead of the “Why?” In his excellent TED talk, Simon Sinek suggests that most uninspired business transactions deal with the particulars of a product or service rather than the underlying motivation. Rather than providing your clients with a laundry list of your services, help them understand how your efforts will help them reach their “why.” As Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Meaning brings clarity – One of the reasons why people fail to save in the now is that it is construed as a loss. In an environment where expensive trinkets can tempt us with each click of the mouse, it can be difficult to put off for a rainy day what could provide more immediate pleasure. Once again, a goals-based approach can help. We know we need to save for some distant date, but the picture we have of the future tends to lack color, which can making saving a burden. By articulating a series of future meaningful goals, advisors can ensure that their clients have this larger “yes” burning inside.

Crosby_PowerofPurpose_3.6.14_2Goals provide comfort in hard times – Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, has written beautifully about the power of purpose in his classic, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl noticed early on that much of what differentiated hope from a failure to thrive among prisoners was a connection to something bigger than the here and now. For those rooted in the horror of the present, it was exceedingly easy to find reasons to despair. But for those able to look forward to something more, their pain was couched in terms of aiding their long-term goals, which provided them some succor.

While I am in no way trying to draw a straight line between Frankl’s experience and that of a worried investor in a time of market panic, the truth remains that focusing on purpose has a calming effect. Rather than being swept up in the pain of the moment, goals-based investors are better able to understand that they are enduring a momentary discomfort on the path to achieving the things that matter most to them. Are your clients sufficiently tuned in to their personal North Star to aid them when times get rough?

If behavioral finance has taught us anything, I hope it is that true wealth is more about a life well lived than achieving a particular rate of return. In a single act, advisors can improve relationships with their clients, get them excited about the investment process and provide them with a buffer against hard times. Why not?

Views expressed are for illustrative purposes only. The information was created and supplied by Dr. Daniel Crosby of IncBlot Behavioral Finance, an unaffiliated third party. Brinker Capital Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor

Brinker Capital at the Financial Services Institute OneVoice 2014 Conference

Noreen BeamanNoreen Beaman, Chief Executive Officer

In June, we announced Brinker Capital as a Premier Sponsor of the Financial Services Institute (FSI), a voice of independent financial services firms and independent financial advisors.  FSI’s mission is to ensure that all individuals have access to competent and affordable financial advice, products and services.

FSI’s OneVoice 2014 Conference kicks off next week in Washington, D.C. where Brinker Capital is proud to be a Premier Sponsor as well as a presenter.  OneVoice is FSI’s annual conference for the independent broker/dealer community to network and gain knowledge of the latest within the industry.

FSI OneVoice Conference 2014We are honored to have our Vice Chairman, John Coyne, chosen as a panelist for the Alternative Investment panel; our Vice President of Business Administration, Brendan McConnell, as a panelist to share insight on the latest technology tools to help advisors gain efficiencies; and behavioral finance expert, Dr. Daniel Crosby, as a presenter on understanding investor behavior.

This year’s conference promises to be a good one as FSI celebrates 10 years of advocacy for independent financial service advisors and firms.  We look forward to seeing many of you there!

Financial Advisors Finally Confident in U.S. Economy, Q3 Brinker Barometer Finds

We have the results of our third quarter 2013 Brinker Barometer® survey, a gauge of financial advisor confidence and sentiment regarding the economy, retirement savings, investing and market performance.

For the full press release, please click here, but in the meantime check out the infographic below for some of the highlights:


Behavioral Finance 101: Framing

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

As we’ve discussed in the first two parts of this series, economic decision makers are not the cold, detached, decision makers they have historically been painted to be by efficient market theorists. Quite the opposite, human behavior is marked by irrationalities and fuzzy logic based more closely on mental approximations than hard and fast rules. We have already touched upon the impact of heuristics and irrational behavior and today will turn our gaze to the third pillar of behavioral finance – framing.

7.10.13_Crosby_Framing_2Simply put, framing is an example of a cognitive bias in which people arrive at a different decision depending on how the question is framed. While homo economicus would weigh all decisions equally and disregard framing effects, actual behaviors indicate that the lens through which we view a decision has everything to do with the eventual outcome. Frames can take a number of shapes; it could be the physical place where we make a decision, whether a question is positively or negatively framed, and even the way we mentally account for the options from which we are selecting.

Consider a real-life framing example with a huge cost to the U.S. taxpayer. Twice in the past few years, the government has tried to stimulate the economy by offering tax rebates to the hardworking citizens of the U. S. of A. Both times, these efforts have met disappointing ends, and behavioral finance may just be able to tell us why.

Belsky and Gilovich lead us toward the answer in their excellent primer, “Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes.” They describe a study conducted at Harvard wherein 24 students were given $25 to spend in a lab store as part of their participation in a research. Any unspent money, they were told, would be returned to them shortly via check. But wait, there’s a rub (there always is when psychologists are involved)! Half of the students were told that the $25 was a “rebate” and the other half told that it was a “bonus.” Could such a minute difference in cognitive framing have a measurable impact on spending behavior? It turns out, it could.

7.10.13_Crosby_Framing_1For those whose earnings were framed as a bonus, 84% spent some money in the lab store, a behavior mimicked by only 21% of those whose money was framed as a “rebate.” Now consider the decision of the U.S. government to give “tax rebates” to help stimulate the economy—an action that ultimately failed, probably at least in part due to framing effects. Irrational decision makers that we are, we fail to grasp the fungible nature of dollars and account for them differently based upon how they are framed in our mind. As Nick Epley, the psychologist who conducted the Harvard study, said more forcibly, “Reimbursements send people on trips to the bank. Bonuses send people on trips to the Bahamas.”

One of the most profound forms of framing effect plays on our fear of loss in times of fear or risk, or the related fear of missing out in times of plenty. This tendency, demonstrated most powerfully by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky is known as “loss aversion.”[1] The basic tenet of loss aversion is that people are more upset a loss than they are excited by an equivalent gain. Consider the comical demonstration of loss aversion that resulted from a survey conducted by Thomas Gilovich. Mr. Gilovich asked half of the respondents to a questionnaire whether or not they could save 20% of their income, to which only half said yes. The second half of the respondents was asked whether they could live on 80% of their income, to which 80% replied in the affirmative. To-may-to, to-mah-to, right? So why are the responses so different?

7.10.13_Crosby_Framing_3The first phrasing frames it as a 20% loss of spending power (there is a large body of research that indicates that saving is viewed as a loss. Silly people), whereas the second frames it more positively. Thus, equivalent financial realities are viewed through entirely different lenses that lead to decisions with profoundly different outcomes.

One of the benefits of behavioral finance is that it shines a light on the little peccadilloes that make us the flawed but lovable people we are. But irrational as we may be, we can turn the tide on ourselves and use these quirks to our personal advantage. Framing is only disadvantageous inasmuch as the frames we are applying to our money are reckless. Viewing money through the frame of a charitable contribution or a child’s college fund can impact your financial decision positively just as surely as framing it as disposable can have a negative impact. At Brinker Capital, our Personal Benchmark system accounts for the human tendency to mentally account for and frame dollars, and does so in a way that helps ensure an appropriate allocation of assets across a risk spectrum. As we hope you’re aware after taking part in this behavioral finance survey course, you are not as logical and dispassionate as you might have guessed. Whether or not you use that irrationality to your benefit or detriment is now up to you.

[1] Kahneman, D. and Tversky, A. (1984). “Choices, Values, and Frames”. American Psychologist 39 (4): 341–350.

Seeking a Greater Purpose in Investing

Dan WilliamsDan Williams, CFP, Investment Analyst

The “science” of investing is well known. The modern portfolio theory (MPT) of investments developed over the past 50 years, starting with Harry Markowitz, has become so ingrained into the investment management culture that the concept of portfolio diversification has become second nature to most people. This is of course due to the mathematical analysis showing that diversification improves investment portfolios’ risk and return characteristics. To say differently, it makes good math sense.

6.27.13_Williams_1Recently though, investment management research has begun to venture into the new field know as Behavioral Finance. At a high level, this theory points out that the owners of these investment portfolios are not emotionless robots that are attempting to optimize the expected value of portfolios for a given level of risk, but rather humans who have reactions to watching their portfolios change in value and who also have goals for the wealth created. Often times this theory’s task seems to be to point out our human flaws and biases so that we can move closer to MPT. This includes our confirmation bias (seeking out only information we agree with rather than information that challenges our thinking), overconfidence bias (believing we are above average in our skills), and loss aversion (finding that we will irrationally gamble to avoid a loss already sustained but unwilling to take a gamble that might result in a loss, even when the odds are in our favor). Still, this idea also points out what gets lost in the math of MPT. Specifically, that an investment portfolio has greater purpose than just the accumulation of money.

The meaning here can be shown in the following dream scenario. You take a trip to Vegas, you see a slot machine, you put a dollar into the machine for fun, pull the lever, and you hit the big jackpot. You are then told that you can either have the $10 million prize immediately, or a flip of a coin for the chance to win $25 million or lose it all. The vast majority of people would take the $10 million dollars. Consider instead the experience of the MPT optimizing robot. First, the robot would likely not put the $1 into the slot machine. Why put $1 in when the expected value is $0.95? Second, given the jackpot options the robot would likely gamble it all at the chance for $25 million as the expected value of $12.5 million is greater than the $10 million. The math is clear—the robot is optimizing and we are not. But that is not the whole story.

6.27.13_Williams_2First, most humans get utility from putting a dollar into a slot machine outside of the outcome of the gamble. As such, we may be rational to gamble if the utility of the $0.95 expected value and the experience of gambling together are greater than the utility of the $1 in our pocket. Second, given the jackpot options, outside of the fear of losing the $10 million, there is also a diminishing marginal utility to money. That is to say simply that an extra $1 million to you or me changes our lives a lot more than an extra $1 million to Warren Buffett. It is quite possible that the utility we tie to that first $10 million is greater than the utility to that next $15 million. As such, we could be rational in both the action to gamble and the decision to take $10 million.

While lottery dreams are nice, the practical meaning is that our investments allow us to do things. Said differently, our investment balance is not just a number, it represents our ability to meet goals. To some, that $10 million meant the ability to have the freedom to travel, to retire for others, a fleet of cars to those so inclined, and a chance to make the world a better place for still others.

NorthstarIn this line of thinking, the relatively newly developed bucket approach to investment management ties specific assets to specific goals. This simple concept turns a portfolio that is invested based on some risk profile that in an opaque manner will meet your goals into a portfolio of portfolios that represent directly your goals. Accordingly, rather than having portfolio performance measured against a generic market benchmark, the measure that matters is whether each of these portfolios is on track to meet their assigned goals. Accordingly, Brinker Capital’s recent offering in this area is appropriately named “Personal Benchmark.” A final point is that people draw utility not just from spending their investments to meet goals, but also from where and how they invest. Socially Responsible Investing, also known as ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance), allows people to allocate capital where they believe the welfare of those outside themselves is best considered. Outside of the fact that there is evidence that investing in industries and companies that have these positive attributes may also improve investment performance, the fact that we are able to encourage positive change in the world while we save for our goals is a powerful concept.

In aggregate, the recent changes to investment management are brilliant in their simplicity to give purpose back to investments. The more empowered we feel with meeting our goals with our investments, the more likely we are to meet, and even exceed, those goals.