Investment Insights Podcast – April 30, 2014

Bill MillerBill Miller, Chief Investment Officer

On this week’s podcast (recorded April 25, 2014):

The sentiments below were inspired by Dalbar’s 20th annual investor behavior analysis. You can read a summary of the study here, via ThinkAdvisor.

What we don’t like: Investors have underperformed the markets, often due to fear and poor timing

What we like: Potential market correction during the summer; important for investors to heed the advice of their advisors and stick to investment objectives

What we are doing about it: Focus on the positives like energy renaissance, manufacturing renaissance, and goals-based solutions

Click the play icon below to launch the audio recording.

Source: Dalbar, ThinkAdvisor

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.

Volatility: Why it Matters

Ryan Dressel Ryan Dressel, Investment Analyst, Brinker Capital

Have you ever noticed how many commercials on TV use blind comparison tests to prove that their products are better than their competitors? Soft drinks, washing detergents, tablets, air fresheners, fast food chains, and even web sites all use this marketing tool on a fairly regular basis. One reason companies do this is to try to change your perception about their product. It’s human nature to associate a good or bad feeling about a product, brand, or company based on personal experiences. If you got sick from food at a restaurant for example, chances are you won’t return to that restaurant again, even if it changes the staff, menu, and décor. A blind comparison test is an attempt to convince you that a product isn’t as bad as you might think.

How can this be applied to your investments? You’ll hear dozens of mutual fund companies advertise that they are beating an index, benchmark, or peer group (such as Lipper) over a specific time frame. You could also open the Wall Street Journal and read about a mutual fund manager boasting smart decisions with regard to short-term news, such as the S&P 500 rising or falling in any given week. If you try to interpret headline news or those T.V. commercials without any context, there’s a good chance you could misjudge your portfolio and even worse, make an irrational decision! What you will rarely hear on T.V. or read in the papers is an advertisement for a portfolio that provides steady and consistent returns by managing volatility.

Why does volatility matter? To demonstrate the value of volatility, we’ll do a blind comparison using two hypothetical portfolios (you saw that coming right?). Both Portfolio A and Portfolio B started with an initial investment of $100,000 and have a sum of returns of 65% over a 10-year time period. The portfolios have the following annual returns over that time frame:

Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5 Year 6 Year 7 Year 8 Year 9 Year 10
Portfolio A +2% +13% +5% +20% 7% 4% -7% -1% +16% +6%
Portfolio B +6% +25% -10% +36% -15% +11% -25% -7% +33% +11%

Which portfolio would you predict to have a higher balance at the end of the 10-year time frame? Looking at the returns we can observe a few things that jump out. Portfolio B managed to achieve extremely high gains in years 2, 4 and 9. Conversely, it also had a couple of really bad years in year 5, and year 7. It also finished the last two years with a combined +44%. Looking at Portfolio A, we can see that it never topped 20% in a given year, and never lost more than 7% in a year. It also finished seven out of the 10 years with a return of +7% or less.

If you chose Portfolio A, you would be correct!

Dressel_Volatility_4.18.14_3

As demonstrated in the charts above and below, Portfolio A has a much lower level of volatility. Through the power of compounding, this allowed Portfolio A to finish with a higher balance despite the fact that both portfolios have identical sum of returns. In reality, this is typically achieved by constructing a well-diversified portfolio using a wide array of asset classes. This is also a good reminder of how fixed income and absolute return strategies are beneficial to your portfolio in any market environment.

Dressel_Volatility_4.18.14_2

If these were actual investment products, there is no doubt that you would hear Portfolio B being advertised as an outperformer during a time frame that captures those years of strong performance. In the end however, the only thing that matters is the balance of your portfolio and that you are on track towards achieving your investment goals. Be sure to review your portfolio in the right context, especially during times of market “noise.”

Source: The data used and shown above is hypothetical in nature and shown for illustrative purposes. Not intended as investment advice.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are for informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.

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

Everyone’s Unique

Jeff Raupp Jeff Raupp, CFA, Senior Investment Manager

Whenever I go to the bowling alley it strikes me how unique people are. And no, it’s not because of the multi-colored shoes or even the matching team jackets complete with catchy names like “Pin Pals” or “Medina Sod” sewn on the back. It’s because of the bowling balls.

Every time I head to the lanes, I can bank on spending at least ten minutes trying to find a ball that works for me. You have the heavy balls with the tiny finger holes and the huge thumb, the balls with the finger holes on the other side of the ball away from the thumb, and the ones where it seems like someone was playing around and drilled three random holes. Half of the time I find myself weighing the embarrassment of using a purple or pink ball that feels okay versus a more masculine black or red ball that weighs a ton but can only fit my pinkie. I’m always left thinking, “Where’s the guy or gal that this ball actually fits?”

Raupp_Everyones_Unique_2.14.14But at the end of the day, I find that if I find the right ball, where my hand feels comfortable and the weight is just right, I have a much better game.

In the same way, how to best save toward your life goals is unique to each investor. Even in the scenario where two investors have the same age, same investable assets and generally the same goals, the portfolio that helps them achieve those goals may be decidedly different between them. Investor emotion can play a huge role in the success or failure of an investment plan, and keeping those emotions in check is vital. There is nothing more damaging to the potential for an investor to meet their goals than an emotional decision to deviate from their long-term strategy due to market conditions.

Fortunately, there’s often more than one way to reach a particular goal. There are strategies that focus on total return versus ones that focus on generating income. Strategies that are more market oriented versus those that look to produce a certain level of return regardless of the markets. And there are tactical strategies and strategic strategies. For any investor’s personal goal(s), several of these, or a combination of these, might provide the necessary investment returns to get you there.

Raupp_Everyones_Unique_2.14.14_1Here’s where the emotions can come into play—if you don’t feel comfortable along the way, your emotions can take over the driver’s wheel, and your investor returns can fall short of your goal. In 2008-2009, many investors panicked, fled the markets, and decided to go to cash near the market bottom; but they missed much of the huge market rebound that followed. While in many cases the investors pre-recession strategy was sound and ultimately would have worked to reach their goals, their irrational decision during a period of volatility made it a tougher road.

Unfortunately, you don’t have the benefit of rolling a few gutter balls while you’re trying to find the right portfolio. That’s why working with an expert to find an investment strategy that can get you to your goals, and that matches your personality and risk profile, is vital to success.

Good bowlers show up at the alley with their own fitted ball and rightly-sized shoes. Good investors put their assets in a strategy fitted to their goals.

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.

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.

Behavioral Finance 101: Heuristics

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

While the field of behavioral finance has been around for 40 or so years (depending on who you ask), it truly came into its own in 2002 when Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his work around uncertainty and decision-making. Although he claims never to have taken an economics class, Kahneman’s work shed new light on the ways in which actual people behave under real-life circumstances, as opposed to the idealized assumptions of efficient market hypothesis, the theretofore ascendant paradigm for understanding investment outcomes.

While one of the nagging critiques of behavioral finance is that it has no mutually-agreed-upon philosophical framework, most psychologists divide it into three pillars: heuristics, irrational behavior and framing. Over the next few weeks, we’ll take each of those three pillars and try and understand them a little more deeply. In so doing, we’ll also tackle the “so what” of behavioral finance for the average investor. Without any further adieu I give you Part One of our survey course on behavioral finance – Heuristics.

I’m not sure what time of day you’re reading this, but whenever it is I can be sure of one thing: you’ve already made a lot of decisions today. First of all, there was whether or not to hit the snooze button. Then, what to have for breakfast? Luffa with body wash or bar soap in the shower? Grey suit or navy suit? And so on and so forth. The point is, given the myriad decisions we all face every day, it’s no wonder that we end up relying on heuristics or experiential rules of thumb, when making even important decisions. To give you a little firsthand experience with heuristics, I’d like to ask you to do the following:

5.9.13_Crosby_BeFiBlog_1Quick! Name all the words you can that begin with the letter “K.” Go on, I’m not listening. (Insert Jeopardy theme song here). How many were you able to come up with? Now, name all of the words you can in which K is the third letter. How many could you name this time?

If you are like most people, you found it easier to generate a list of words that begin with K; the words probably came to you more quickly and were more plentiful in number. But, did you know that there are three times as many words in which K is the third letter than there are that start with K? If that’s the case, why is it so much easier to create a list of words that start with K?

5.9.13_Crosby_BeFiBlog_1_pic3It turns out that our mind’s retrieval process is far from perfect, and a number of biases play into our ability to retrieve data with which we’ll make a decision. Psychologists call this fallibility in your memory retrieval mechanism the “availability heuristic,” which simply means that we predict the likelihood of an event based on things we can easily call to mind. Unfortunately for us, the imperfections of the availability heuristic are hard at work as we attempt to gauge the riskiness of different decisions, including how to allocate our assets.

In addition to having a memory better suited to recall things at the beginning and the end of a list, we are also better able to envision things that are scary. I know this first hand. Roughly six years ago, I moved to the North Shore of Hawaii along with my wife for a six-month internship. Although our lodging was humble, we were thrilled to be together in paradise and eager to immerse ourselves in the local culture and all the natural beauty it had to offer. That is, until I watched “Shark Week.”

5.9.13_Crosby_BeFiBlog_1_pic5For the uninitiated, “Shark Week” is the Discovery Channel’s seven-day documentary programming binge featuring all things finned and scary. A typical program begins by detailing sharks’ predatory powers, refined over eons of evolution, as they are brought to bear on the lives of some unlucky surfers. As the show nears its end, the narrator typically makes the requisite plea for appreciating these noble beasts, a message that has inevitably been over-ridden by the previous 60 minutes of fear mongering.

For one week straight, I sat transfixed by the accounts of one-legged surfers undeterred by their ill fortune (“Gotta get back on the board, dude”) and waders who had narrowly escaped with their lives. Heretofore an excellent swimmer and ocean lover, I resolved at the end of that week that I would not set foot in Hawaiian waters. And indeed I did not. So traumatized was I by the availability of bad news that I found myself unable to muster the courage to snorkel, dive or do any of the other activities I had so looked forward to just a week ago.

In reality, the chance of a shark attacking me was virtually nonexistent. The odds of me getting away with murder (about 1 in 2), being made a Saint (about 1 in 20 million) and having my pajamas catch fire (about 1 in 30 million), were all exponentially greater than me being bitten by a shark (about 1 in 300 million). My perception of risk was warped wildly by my choice to watch a program that played on human fear for ratings and my actions played out accordingly. This, my friends, is heuristic decision making hard at work.

Hopefully by now the application to investment decision-making is becoming apparent. For so long, we have been sold an economic model that posited that we had perfect, uniform access to information and made decisions that weighed that information objectively. In reality, our storage and retrieval processes are imperfect, with recent and emotionally charged pieces of data looming larger than the rest.

5.9.13_Crosby_BeFiBlog_1_pic4Investors and financial services professionals that understand these imperfections are better positioned to understand the limitations of their knowledge and try to intervene accordingly. At times this may mean taking a more tentative position to circumvent undue risk. Other times this may mean digging a little deeper on what may initially appear to be a foolproof trade. Whatever the case, it is only after we free ourselves from the myth of homo-economicus, that we are able truly become our best investing selves. Making decisions based on subjective logic needn’t be your undoing as an investor, but assuming that you’re a perfectly logical decision maker just might.