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Insights: A Watched Portfolio Never Performs

A Watched Portfolio Never Performs

Even when making money, investors feel like they’re falling behind

Perception is reality when it comes to your portfolio.

Many investors feel like their portfolios are always underperforming. No matter how well diversified or how many best-in-class strategies they own, it rarely feels like they're making progress.

The reason it feels this way is the same reason a watched pot never boils: the observer effect. By simply looking at our portfolios, we are affecting our performance.

We are all aware of how making emotional decisions can destroy portfolio returns. But few are aware that how we mentally perceive performance can affect how we make investment decisions—even more so than the cold hard facts.

Effects of prospect theory

The gap between performance and perceived performance is explained by prospect theory.

Investopedia describes prospect theory as a phenomenon where “…losses cause greater emotional impact on an individual than does an equivalent amount of gain…”

This might be because fear is an absolute emotion and greed is a relative one. Fear is essential to our survival instincts and thus, we are inclined to draw out negativity to its worst conclusion. In the inverse, we expect good things to happen so we discount positivity. Even when things are the best and we’re comfortably in pursuit of greed, we are relatively certain that at any moment the other shoe is about to drop.

Whatever the explanation, this influence on investors’ psyches and their subsequent behavior can have a devastating impact on investment results.   

The emotional experience of investing

The chart below shows how bad our perceptions, or misconceptions, can distort reality and create pain.

It depicts a simple example of how an investor might experience prospect theory: the raw performance of the S&P 500 index is in solid blue. However, since each person’s emotional experience changes depending on how often they observe this performance, we demonstrate the likely emotional experience in the dotted lines.

The green dotted line is how an investor, according to prospect theory, will perceive the portfolio if they look at it monthly. The dark blue dotted line is if they look at it weekly. The red dotted line is if they look at it daily.

In reality, the S&P 500 appreciated by over 700% during this time period. An investor who checked their investment results just one time, after 23 years, would see this very large gain. Plus he would not have experienced any of the volatility (and corresponding fear or greed) along the way.  In other words, this investor avoided the negative impact of prospect theory. 

On the other hand, an investor who viewed his investment results monthly, according to the theory, would have a very different emotional experience.  Remember, the theory suggests that a 10% gain feels moderately good, while a 10% loss feels exceptionally bad.  At a monthly frequency, over 23 years, that’s 276 opportunities for prospect theory to create negative emotions.    

The impact gets much worse the more frequent the observations. This leads to a dangerous cycle between fear, greed and prospect theory: when things are good, you discount it, and when they’re bad, you overreact. This skewed perception enhances your fear or greed, leading to more emotional decision-making that never pays off. Why? Because the good is never good enough and the bad feels worse than it actually is. And the cycle continues.

Cure the negative feedback cycle

Now, we know you aren’t going to just ignore your portfolio. You’ll still get notifications from CNBC and Bloomberg on your favorite stocks. Major social, economic or political movements around the globe will still send you rushing to check the effect on your portfolio. But at least you can be conscious of the enemy—you own your emotions.   

Despite the influx of information, there’s still an easy way to counter prospect theory: portfolio balance. The more balanced your portfolio is, the less volatility you’ll feel. Lower drawdowns mean less fear and greed, which of course means fewer emotional decisions and reduced effects of prospect theory. Awareness of this pattern helps, too.

Finding balance in today’s economy

Being aware of the benefits of true diversification and the damage that fear and greed can do is as crucial as keeping up with the financial news. Being aware of the games that prospect theory can play with your mind is nearly as important as choosing quality investments, at least if you’re seeking to achieve a balanced portfolio that helps you feel in control of your financial future.

Otherwise, even when you’re making money, you’ll never feel like you’re keeping up with the Joneses.

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Alternative investments: strategies that produce returns by taking risk other than equity and bond risk.

Bond: A debt security that shows ownership in a corporation or represents a claim in the corporation assets and earnings.

Correlation: a statistical measure of how two securities move in relation to each other.

Long: Buying an asset such as a stock, commodity or currency, with the expectation that the asset will rise in value.

Short: Buying an asset such as a stock, commodity or currency, with the expectation that the asset will decrease in value.

Stock: A security that shows ownership in a corporation or represents a claim in the corporation assets and earnings.

True diversifiers: investment strategies that have historically provided investors with at least 70% of the return of the traditional 60/40 stocks and bonds portfolios while having less than .30 bear correlation to traditional 60/40 stocks and bonds portfolios.