By now, you’ve probably heard the news: Your own behavioral biases are often the greatest threat to your financial well-being. As investors, we leap before we look. We stay when we should go. We cringe at the very risks that are expected to generate our greatest rewards. All the while, we rush into nearly every move, only to fret and regret them long after the deed is done.
Why Do We Have Behavioral Biases?
Most of the behavioral biases that influence your investment decisions come from myriad mental shortcuts we depend on to think more efficiently and act more effectively in our busy lives.
Usually (but not always!) these short-cuts work well for us. They can be powerful allies when we encounter physical threats that demand reflexive reaction, or even when we’re simply trying to stay afloat in the rushing roar of deliberations and decisions we face every day.
What Do They Do To Us?
As we’ll cover in this series, those same survival-driven instincts that are otherwise so helpful can turn deadly in investing. They overlap with one another, gang up on us, confuse us and contribute to multiple levels of damage done.
Friend or foe, behavioral biases are a formidable force. Even once you know they’re there, you’ll probably still experience them. It’s what your brain does with the chemically induced instincts that fire off in your head long before your higher functions kick in. They trick us into wallowing in what financial author and neurologist William J. Bernstein, MD, PhD, describes as a “Petrie dish of financially pathologic behavior,” including:
- Counterproductive trading – incurring more trading expenses than are necessary, buying when prices are high and selling when they’re low.
- Excessive risk-taking – rejecting the “risk insurance” that global diversification provides, instead over-concentrating in recent winners and abandoning recent losers.
- Favoring emotions over evidence – disregarding decades of evidence-based advice on investment best practices.
What Can We Do About Them?
In this multi-part “ABCs of Behavioral Biases,” we’ll offer an alphabetic introduction to investors’ most damaging behavioral biases, so you can more readily recognize and defend against them the next time they’re happening to you.
Here are a few additional ways you can defend against the behaviorally biased enemy within:
Anchor your investing in a solid plan – By anchoring your trading activities in a carefully constructed plan (with predetermined asset allocations that reflect your personal goals and risk tolerances), you’ll stand a much better chance of overcoming the bias-driven distractions that rock your resolve along the way.
Increase your understanding – Don’t just take our word for it. Here is an entertaining and informative library on the fascinating relationship between your mind and your money:
- “Predictably Irrational,” Dan Ariely
- “Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes,” Gary Belsky, Thomas Gilovich
- “Stumbling on Happiness,” Daniel Gilbert
- “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman
- “The Undoing Project,” Michael Lewis
- “Nudge,” Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein
- “Your Money & Your Brain,” Jason Zweig
Don’t go it alone – Just as you can’t see your face without the benefit of a mirror, your brain has a difficult time “seeing” its own biases. Having an objective advisor well-versed in behavioral finance, dedicated to serving your highest financial interests, and unafraid to show you what you cannot see for yourself is among your strongest defenses against all of the biases we’ll present throughout the rest of this series.
As you learn and explore, we hope you’ll discover: You may be unable to prevent your behavioral biases from staging attacks on your financial resolve. But, forewarned is forearmed. You stand a much better chance of thwarting them once you know they’re there!
In our next piece, we’ll begin our A–Z introduction to many of the most common behavioral biases.
Joe Occhipinti is an Investment Advisor Representative of Warren Street Wealth Advisors, a Registered Investment Advisor. The information posted here represents his opinions and is not meant as personal or actionable advice to any individual, corporation, or other entity. Any investments discussed carry unique risks and should be carefully considered and reviewed by you and your financial professional. Nothing in this commentary is a solicitation to buy, or sell, any securities, or an attempt to furnish personal investment advice. We may hold securities referenced in the blog and due to the static nature of content, those securities held may change over time and trades may be contrary to outdated posts.
At Warren Street Wealth Advisors, we place a heavy emphasis on continuing education and increasing service offerings for our clients.
Today, we would like to congratulate Veronica Torres on becoming a Notary Public of the state of California, and with the event of her passing, we would like to offer complimentary Notary Public services to all of our clients here at Warren Street.
As we continue to grow as a company, we hope to continue our dedication to increasing our knowledge and service offering to our clients.
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A growing theme in investing is to target and invest only in the least volatile stocks in the market. One simple example of this is take the S&P500, which is a representation of the 500 largest publicly traded stocks in the United States, and only invest in the 10% of companies with the lowest standard deviation of the 500. This would produce names such as AT&T, Coca-Cola, and Johnson & Johnson.
This simple concept traditionally would result in an investor owning a lot more safety, blue chip, and high dividend yielding stocks. Not a bad bet in a historic context. Looking forward however, we have an accelerating concern over the price of these types of companies, which may lead to them not being as safe as one would expect.
One metric we look at to value stocks is the Price to Earnings ratio, the easiest way to describe this is what price is an investor willing to pay for every dollar a company earns in profit? A higher P/E ratio implies more expensive, a lower one implies cheap. Comparing a stock, or an index, such as the S&P500 to its historical average P/E can give you a relative idea of whether something is expensive or cheap compared to historical standards.
Historically, going back to 1972, the companies in the lowest 10% volatility bucket in the S&P500 (as measured by standard deviation) produce a historical median P/E ratio of roughly 13. As is stands today that same low volatility class of stocks trades between a P/E ratio of 23 to 24.
Why is this troubling? Well, when prices revert to the mean, and investors are willing to pay less for those same dollars of earnings, it spells trouble for those who hold these assets, especially those who have been chasing the stability and dividends these stocks were expected to provide.
What is causing this? Let’s take a look at the major contributors:
Fed policy. While artificially low interest rate policy is intended to push investors into riskier assets, some investors still want safer assets. Low volatility stocks have higher dividend yields, making them bond proxies.
Sector attribution. The low volatility group is concentrated in Utilities, Financials, and Consumer Staples, which have high dividend yields and P/E ratios that are above their long-term averages.
High valuations for the broad market. The median P/E for the S&P 500 is 24.0, well above its historical norm, which has pushed investors into “safer” stocks.
Secular trends. Fear is a stronger emotion than greed, so investors have flocked to “safer” assets.
Industry innovation. ETFs have enabled investors to more easily buy themes like low volatility.
The first three factors are the most likely the first ones to threaten this crowded trade. The one that has me the most troubled is the fifth factor. Industry innovation has led to specialized investment products that make it very simple for retail investors to buy into this wave of low or minimum volatility assets. We’re seeing these assets recommended in droves to competitor’s clients, with little to no consideration given to how crowded or expensive the trade may be.
These assets in the broad context of a well diversified portfolio may make sense, but from my perspective every asset has a time and a place. Currently, I would not be overpaying for safety by using these low volatility factors we’ve explored above. There are other ways. Like always, when assets deviate from a historical valuation range, it can take quite awhile to be proven right and see them correct. We’re not yelling fire in a crowded theater but would like to see investors better educated on the risks ahead.
Thank you for reading!
Blake Street is an Investment Advisor Representative of Warren Street Wealth Advisors, a Registered Investment Advisor. The information posted here represents his opinions and is not meant as personal or actionable advice to any individual, corporation, or other entity. Any investments discussed carry unique risks and should be carefully considered and reviewed by you and your financial professional. Nothing in this commentary is a solicitation to buy, or sell, any securities, or an attempt to furnish personal investment advice. We may hold securities referenced in the blog and due to the static nature of content, those securities held may change over time and trades may be contrary to outdated posts.
Interest Rates, Inflation, and Monetary Policy: Why aren’t U.S. interest rates going up?
Our topic today is interest rates, inflation, and monetary policy. The question we will attempt to answer is: When are interest rates in the United States finally going to rise?
Defensive Strategies Depress Returns
If you’re like most bond investors, you’ve been expecting interest rates to rise for over 2 years now. As a prudent investor, you’ve been holding the duration, or interest rate risk, of your portfolios shorter than usual to protect against falling prices when rates rise. Unfortunately, the result of your prudent behavior has been to underperform standard indexes such as the Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond index. And if your portfolio is focused primarily on safe assets such as U.S. Treasuries, all but the longest maturity funds struggled to provide a return even modestly better than inflation.
While short-term rates have indeed risen with the Federal Reserve rate hike in December 2015, interest rates for Treasuries maturing in 10 years and beyond have actually fallen by an average of more than -0.50% over the past 3 years. Granted, this article was written the day after the British referendum to exit the European Union, which caused global stock markets to tumble and U.S. Treasury yields to fall. If we measure the change in yields as of June 23, 2016 when most experts expected the British to vote to remain in the E.U., long term interest rates have still fallen an average of -0.37% since January 2013.
In contrast to the lack of upward movement in nominal interest rates, real yields – nominal yields adjusted for inflation – have risen across all maturities in recent years, albeit from an extremely low starting point. As of January 2, 2013 real yields for 5-year Treasury bonds were nearly -1.50%, whereas by June 24, 2016 5-year real yields are only negative -0.50%. And if you were willing to invest for 20 or 30 years, you could earn the princely sum of approximately +0.35% to +0.75% real yield as of January 2013 and June 2016, respectively.
If we take a longer term perspective and look back 10 years, we observe an enviable real rate of approximately 2.5% across maturities from 5 years to 30 years! At today’s paltry real yields of less than 1%, it seems unsustainable to invest hard-earned funds for 5 years or more and barely keep up with inflation. Surely interest rates must return to more normal levels eventually.
But when will that long-awaited time finally arrive?
Building Blocks of Interest Rates
To gain some insight into the drivers of interest rates, let’s take a moment to review the building blocks using what I like to call my ‘interest rate birthday cake’.
Theory would have us believe that the minimum return investors will accept is a modestly positive ‘real return’, historically between 1.0% and 2.5%. If you add a maturity term premium and inflation expectations to the real rate, the result is the ‘risk free’ rate of interest, which we typically consider the U.S. Treasury yield curve.
The average annual inflation rate from 2006 to 2016 was 1.93%¹, so we could expect the risk free rate of interest over that time period to be approximately 3% to 4.5%. And yet 10-year Treasury yields are currently hovering below 2%, while 30-year yields stand at approximately 2.5%. In fact, 10-year Treasury rates have been falling ever since the ‘taper tantrum’ in mid-2013 as the U.S. economy continues to struggle to sustain momentum after the financial crisis of 2008-2009.
¹Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Let’s not forget the aggressive monetary policy actions of the Federal Reserve bank since the financial crisis. The unprecedented amount of monetary stimulus has long been expected to cause inflation, and yet the only result to date has been to keep the U.S. economy from stalling.
Why Has Aggressive Monetary Policy Not Sparked Inflation?
In times past economists observed a fairly reliable relationship between ‘easy money’ and the ‘velocity of money’, or the amount of times a single dollar changes hands. It is the velocity of money that traditionally puts pressure on prices of goods and services.
But as bank lending standards and capital requirements remain strict, consumer debt levels low, and with the ‘shadow banking system’ taking the place of traditional lenders, the velocity of money has been on a steady decline. Consequently, the impact of monetary policy on the economy has diminished.
So if yields on Treasury securities remain stagnant, where else can we look for pressure on interest rates? One answer is the market appetite for risk – what Keynesian economists term ‘animal spirits’. The layers of my ‘interest rate birthday cake’ related to market risk appetites are default risk, liquidity risk, call risk, and others.
The term ‘animal spirits’ is used to describe human emotions that drive consumer confidence. Rising consumer confidence can increase the general level of economic activity if individuals feel wealthier and purchase more goods and services. If consumer demand grows sufficiently, prices of goods and services will increase, as will the general level of interest rates.
Chasing Yield – Investors Look to Corporate Bonds
If we look to Treasury yields for the risk-free interest rate, corporate bond yields should reflect a risk-adjusted rate of interest for various levels of default risk. In recent years, investors with an appetite for risk had found opportunities in low-quality corporate bonds, only to be traumatized in late 2015 and early 2016 as the precipitous drop in oil and gas prices put extreme pressure on the profitability of the energy sector of the U.S. economy. Because the credit quality of many smaller oil and gas producers was below investment grade, the high-yield sector of the bond market was particularly hard hit.
Option-adjusted yield spreads for BBB-rated corporate bonds – the additional yield above the yield of a matched-maturity Treasury – averaged approximately 1.75% in 2006-2007, prior to the financial crisis. In 2015-2016, BBB spreads averaged 2.31%. It seems investors are being fairly compensated for default risk at the current level of yields, despite a rather bumpy ride along the way.
Traditional Drivers of Inflation Are Absent
So with this understanding of the building blocks of interest rates, can we answer the question of why Treasury yields remain stubbornly at levels barely above inflation?
The answer lies in the middle block of the interest rate pyramid: inflation. More precisely, the market’s expectation for future levels of inflation.
As you may recall from your Econ 101 course in school (assuming our readers stayed awake during class!), inflation typically occurs when either, 1) input prices are rising, causing manufacturers and service providers to increase their finished goods prices to the extent possible, or 2) consumer demand for goods and services exceeds the current supply, enabling manufacturers and service providers to increase their prices.
Though employment and consumer sentiment in the U.S. have certainly improved since the financial crisis of 2008-2009, the persistent trend of lower employment participation is thought to dampen the impact of the current, nominally low, unemployment rate relative to previous economic cycles.
Even though the recent drop in oil and gas prices has stabilized, these essential commodities remain at historically low levels enabling manufacturing, transportation, and leisure travel firms to keep prices low.
So when are these competing forces going to settle out and the long-awaited inflation pressures manifest themselves? Not any time soon, if the forward inflation rate expectations published by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis are any guide.
If inflation pressures are indeed muted on both the supply and demand fronts, and risk appetites are being satisfied with the current level of yield spreads, it is difficult to see where inflation pressures, and therefore interest rate increases, are likely to arise in the near term.
And yet investors cannot endure miniscule real yields indefinitely. Surely there must be something else keeping interest rates low?
As Long as U.S. Treasury Bonds Remain a Safe Haven, Treasury Yields will Remain Low
The final piece in the interest rates puzzle comes from outside the ‘birthday cake’; in fact, outside the U.S. entirely. The final piece is the capital ‘flight to safety’ as international investors seek positive returns amid a global economic slowdown and negative interest rates elsewhere in the world.
Given the economic uncertainty caused by the British referendum to leave the European Union, and the dearth of alternative ‘safe haven’ investments, we should expect demand for U.S. securities to remain strong over the near term. Continuing demand for U.S. Treasuries, even at historically low yields, coupled with muted economic activity dampening inflation pressures, means U.S. interest rates can remain low for the foreseeable future.
Eventually, foreign economies should recover and demand for U.S. Treasury securities should fall, pushing yields up to more normal levels as global economic activity strengthens.
But as long as the U.S. is ‘the only game in town’, prudent investors can legitimately maintain the maturities of their portfolios near- to above the standard market index to capture a positive inflation and term premium while awaiting calmer global markets sometime in the intermediate future.
Marcia Clark is an Investment Advisor Representative of Warren Street Wealth Advisors, a Registered Investment Advisor. The information posted here represents her opinions and is not meant as personal or actionable advice to any individual, corporation, or other entity. Any investments discussed carry unique risks and should be carefully considered and reviewed by you and your financial professional. Nothing in this commentary is a solicitation to buy, or sell, any securities, or an attempt to furnish personal investment advice. We may hold securities referenced in the blog and due to the static nature of content, those securities held may change over time and trades may be contrary to outdated posts.
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