Getting to ‘emotional neutrality’ on investing

June 9, 2014 – Published in the North Bay Business Journal

As a financial adviser, one of the first topics we always discuss with new  clients is their financial and emotional tolerance for risk. It is equally as important that we understand their emotional comfort level with investing, as we do their financial capacity to take risk with their money.

Do you recognize what role your emotions play in your financial life?  Are your decisions swayed by fear, greed, confidence, and regret?

Some investors fall victim to greed, while others who experience a loss may succumb to fear and anxiety. Everyone wants to make quick money, but when prices begin to move against an investor, fear or anxiety can undermine rational thinking. Some people become emotionally paralyzed and are unable to think rationally while losses pile up.

This fear of losing too much too soon can also make one jump out of the market too early.  With extreme fear of loss, an investor might resort to irrational ways to overcome the anxiety which commonly leads to the exact opposite of what all investors should do, “buy low and sell high”.

During times of volatile investment markets, ironically, some of the best opportunities emerge as the market gets close to the bottom, not when we feel the emotional rush of excitement when a market is on fire with golden promise and opportunity!

How to get your emotions under control

To succeed in investing, you’ve got to learn the skills to manage yourself and your emotions.

Emotional neutrality is the key. You should only invest for logical, rational reasons, and never, for example, because your colleagues or relatives are buying in droves and making money right now. Most important but hard to follow: make sure that you do not get carried away with the crowd.

A lot has been written about crowd behavior in the investment industry, but more attention is being paid to the phenomena of emotional contagion. As the term suggests, people can infect each other behaviorally. And, in investment matters, this can cost everyone a lot of money (remember the technology bubble of the late 1990’s and more recently the housing bubble of the mid-2000′s)?

Beware of contagion

In fact, history has shown that it is generally best to do the diametrical opposite to what the crowd is doing. When the crowd is cheering and buying, look to sell; when it is panicking and selling, it is generally time to make your move and buy!

Investment contagion frequently leads to irrational or imprudent behavior by preventing “rational” evaluations of investment opportunities, and gets in the way of sound decision-making.

Getting past your emotions

Patience, discipline and fortitude are the antidotes to emotional investing.

Patience is a key trait for successful investors, as there is always the temptation to “get infected” by group behavior, ruled by greed or fear.  Being patient will help an investor through volatile markets because the long-term investment mindset will take the focus off the short-term volatility.

Discipline is needed to ensure that one stays true to investment principles and philosophies, and does not stray off the well-trodden path.

To cultivate discipline, ignore the noise and “advice” bombarding us daily in the form of recommendations and forecasts. To be disciplined also means following your original plan for investment and not deviating from it.

Fortitude is the “mental and emotional strength in facing difficulty, adversity, danger or temptation.” This is probably the hardest emotional quality to foster, as a paper loss can feel very painful due to our natural aversion to loss. Having fortitude means being able to overcome the anguish that you may have made a bad decision and to soldier on even though the odds seem against you. Fortitude is a powerful trait, honed by many years of being in the market and getting used to the market’s manic swings.

Having a good, neutral adviser is also great help. Objective fee only investment advisors can be invaluable partners in ensuring that you don’t get carried away or become imprudent in the face of peer pressure, media noise (CNBC etc), volatile markets, greed, overconfidence, fear and regret. A good adviser should keep you focused on what matters most, a well thought out and disciplined investment plan designed to meet your goals.