Slate advice columnist, Dear Prudence, received this sad and poignant letter seeking guidance earlier this year.
“I keep making terrible decisions and can’t seem to stop.
“Last year I left my home, my family, my friends, a 20-year secure (if uninspired) career, to move 2,000 miles away to be with my first love. I’m 50 and I was his first love as well. He’s married and his wife invited me to their home. We decided to share him, although his wife and I were not interested in one another like that.
“My job here fell through. My dog died. The romance flopped spectacularly. I still love him desperately. And when he told me that it was over and that he didn’t love me and never had, I begged him to reconsider, only to have his wife come in and start screaming at me to keep my f***ing hands off her f***ing husband.
“I snapped. I tried to kill myself. I ended up in a coma and then went to the psych ward. I have been out for only a week. I’m back at work. I’m freshly diagnosed as Bipolar I. I’m on new meds I don’t think are helping. Of course I had to move out and I’m living a very lonely life. I do not feel stable and I cry for hours every night. The loneliness is killing me. I have psychiatric follow-up and intend to do what I can to survive and thrive.
“My former boyfriend is now making noises about wanting to be ‘friends with benefits’ with me once I am ‘well again,’ which sounds more like he wants a self-supporting mistress that he can come and have sex with and then leave at will. I still love him but I realize this is a gross affront to my worth as a human being. I just don’t trust myself to say ‘no.’ Counselling may help but I still don’t trust myself to make good, healthy decisions. Everything I do blows up in my face.
We humans are shockingly prone to bad ideas, ideas that routinely grow into poor decisions and then metastasize into behavior that may undermine, severely damage or even ruin our lives and futures (see, e.g., Weiner, Anthony). In the words of Kant, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” We share a pitiable and cracked nature desperately in need of a repair job nobody seems qualified to perform. We’d all like to think that we’re a lot better off than the letter-writer above, and most of us probably are (if not nearly so self-aware), but vanishingly few of us have a consistently good track record of decision-making and none of us is as good as we think we are. We’re all too much like the party girl protagonist Wini Shaw in the Busby Berkeley movie musical Gold Diggers of 1935’s dark, surrealist closing number, a 14-minute Art-Deco fever dream (“Lullaby of Broadway” — perhaps Berkeley’s greatest achievement), who ends up dancing herself right out of a skyscraper window to her death.
Accordingly, the idea that we act in our own rational self-interest with any degree of regularity is, quite obviously, ludicrous and falsified every single day by our choices and our lives. Worst of all, we readily recognize such self-destructive behavior in others but consistently and tragically lack the ability even to see it in ourselves. As legendary physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman warned, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” The Apostle Paul also (an odd pair for agreement if ever there was one) made the same point (Romans 7:15): “What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise.” We just can’t seem to help ourselves.
Despite the enormity of this problem, the investment portfolios we design, recommend and manage routinely discount or even effectively deny the overwhelming evidence of our cognitive and behavioral weaknesses and how they impact our financial decision-making and well-being in favor of technocratic attempts at efficiency and optimization. In the immortal words of Pogo, “we [may] have met the enemy and he is us,” but we don’t seem very willing to try to do very much about it.
William Goldman is an Academy Award winning screenwriter, novelist and playwright. He wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men and The Princess Bride and some other excellent films. He famously said the following about the movies, but it applies much more broadly.
“Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”
Josh Brown stated why perfectly: “People can’t be accurately modeled. And it’s people who work and vote and invest and trade and make deals and stick things into themselves that require a trip to the emergency room.”
This dangerous reality implicit in our portfolio construction choices ignores an irrefutable fact: no matter how fantastic the financial plan or how perfect the portfolio, they don’t do a bit of good if the plan isn’t followed and the portfolio maintained when times, markets, situations and feelings change…as they inevitably do. Or, to turn the problem on its head, as Josh would have it: “You can boil down whether or not a financial advisor is adding value into a single metric, you might even say it’s the only metric that matters: Retention. Do clients stay?” Therefore, a “Mary Poppins” portfolio – “practically perfect in every way” (when the “every way” means analytically and not behaviorally) – won’t usually be good enough, to the extent it even exists.
Our lives change. Our goals change. Our outlooks change. Our situations change. Our risk tolerances and profiles change. Emotions run high. Life gets messy. Are our financial plans and investment portfolios robust enough from a behavioral perspective to cope when that (inevitably) happens?
In my experience the answer is, “Usually not.” For example, we (clients and advisors alike) are always prone to performance chasing – buying what has been working well recently and selling what hasn’t been working and thus buying high and selling low – which inevitably leads to losses when mean reversion sets in and to excess trading generally. “In hot markets, money flows in,” says Professor Ilia Dichev of Emory. “In down markets, people get scared and leave.” As a result, stock investors lagged behind the stock market itself by 1.3 percentage points annually between 1926 and 2002, according to Dichev’s research. Even pension plans and other institutional investors earn an average of at least three percentage points less than the funds they buy. In other words, “past performance is indicative of future beliefs.”
How we might strengthen portfolios so as to withstand the weaknesses of human behavior is thus the enormous challenge this analysis sets out to explore. Continue reading