BlackRock's Weekly Market Commentary: Beware behavioural bias in new regime

By the BlackRock Investment Institute

BlackRock's Weekly Market Commentary: Staying invested amid new virus  strain - MoneyMarketing

Investors are strapped in for a market rollercoaster in a new regime of increased volatility. Views on central bank rates are shuffling fast, as last week’s market reaction to the Fed’s rate hike showed. We think this warrants careful thought about portfolio changes. But change is hard. Behavioral biases subconsciously influence investment decisions. We look at three biases likely to trouble investors, especially in this volatile market – and share tips on how to overcome these pitfalls.

Chart of the week

Pain vs. gain

Satisfaction with gains and losses in behavioral finance prospect theory

Sources: BlackRock Investment Institute, adapted from Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, Econometrica 12 (1980). Notes: The chart shows satisfaction levels from gains and losses relative to a neutral reference point. Black boxes show satisfaction magnitude along the S curve of risk tolerance – from risk seeking (red line) to risk averse (green line).

The first bias is the disposition effect, or the tendency to hold losing positions too long and sell winning ones too soon. We expect the disposition bias to be most prevalent when investors are feeling stinging losses – like so far this year. Both stocks and bonds have racked up declines not seen since the 1970s this year. Behavioral finance finds that people feel the pain of loss twice as strongly as they experience an equivalent gain as pleasurable (the red versus green arrow in the chart). As a result, people may hold on to losing positions to avoid the pain of a loss (bottom left in chart). Meanwhile, it’s tempting to lock in gains too soon on winning positions because of a reluctance to take more risk for only marginal benefits (top right).

There’s a second bias that should really be public enemy No. 1 today for professional investors: inertia. This is a reluctance to make changes or making ones too small to affect performance. Why is this especially a problem now? The era of steady growth and inflation known as the Great Moderation is over, we believe. A new regime of increased macro volatility is in its place.

Yet central banks appear to believe they can magically curb inflation and cause only a mild economic slowdown, as we wrote last week. We see more volatility ahead as markets have rallied on hopes the Fed is about to change course and relax policy. That optimism is misplaced, in our view. All of this calls for professional investors to change their portfolios more quickly. It will be costly, in our view, to just follow playbooks such as “buying the dip“ or make slow and minimal changes.

Endowment is the third kind of bias to guard against in the current market backdrop. Think of it as excessively deliberating over whether you may one day need something that sat collecting dust for years – whereas you clearly should be decluttering. People with this bias overvalue their assets. The longer they own them, the higher the price they demand to give them up. The endowment effect can lead investors to hold on to positions even after an investment strategy has played out. This can hurt performance. Positions often produce more returns earlier in their life spans, we find.

Tips to mitigate these biases

First, do a blank-slate exercise – imagine you have realised all your gains and losses. Then construct the ideal portfolio for the most likely market and macro environment over your time horizon. That doesn’t mean abandoning long-standing investment processes. Instead, consider portfolio changes without basing it on your historical portfolio holdings and performance.

Second, think of future market events or performance thresholds that would signal when to take profit or cut losses. Making a plan can help determine how to react amid volatile markets and high emotions. This is the reason we give signposts for changing our views in our 2022 midyear outlook. Third, encourage open conversations about biases and the changes required to overcome them. Discuss your emotions after losses, examine mistakes even when performance is good, and weigh input from colleagues with an alternative point of view.

Our bottom line 

Beware of behavioural biases in investing. We are guarding against their pitfalls because we believe the new regime requires an overhaul of portfolios. We’ve reduced portfolio risk throughout this year. Our latest tactical move: an up-in-quality portfolio shift by downgrading developed market stocks and upgrading investment grade credit. We underweight U.S. Treasuries and overweight inflation-linked bonds, believing markets underestimate the new regime’s inflationary nature.

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