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The gold rush of fear

November 15, 2010

“In anxious times people seek cover in gold,” wrote the New York Times in November 2010, as the price of an ounce of gold crossed the $1,400 bar. “People are coming in to buy 50 or 100 coins at a time, which is hefty for individuals,” said a coin broker. “It’s not just rich people, either. A lot of people are putting 30 to 35 percent of their net worth in gold; they are scared to put money in paper assets. ”

Fear is driving up the price of gold yet there is reason for fear. It was not long ago that we have lost almost half of the value of our stocks, unemployment is still hovering around 10 percent, budget deficits are huge, money is printed in enormous quantities, and currency wars are brewing. Still, even a gold-bull is concerned that the price of gold has shot too high. “It’s beginning to smell a little like the beginning stages of a bubble,” he said.

We are all gripped by fear from time to time, yet fear is not a good investment guide. Few accidents are more horrifying than airplane crashes, yet the fear elicited by such disasters depresses stock beyond reason. Aviation disasters cause actual losses lower than $1 billion on average, but the loss in the value of stocks following an aviation disaster averages more than $60 billion.

We are less willing to take risk when we are frightened than when we are calm. In one experiment, a group of students were offered money to stand before the class the following week and tell a joke. A flat joke can be embarrassing, so it is not surprising that some students who agreed to tell a joke withdrew in fear when the time came to stand and tell a joke. But students who were frightened were more likely to withdraw than students who were not. Half the students in the experiment were shown a fear-inducing film clip from The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror film, before deciding whether to tell a joke or withdraw. It turned out that a greater proportion of them withdrew.

Fear misleads us to avoid risk even when it is wise to take risk. Here is an investment game: I’ll toss a coin right before your eyes. If it comes out heads, I’ll pay you $1.50. If it comes out tails, you’ll pay me $1. We’ll play 20 rounds of this game. Before each round you can choose to participate or sit it out. Ready? Suppose that you have lost three dollars in the first three rounds because all three tosses came out tails. Do you choose to participate in the fourth round or do you choose to sit out?

Three losses in a row would arouse fear in normal investors. Many choose to sit out the fourth round. But there is no good reason to be afraid because the game is stacked in favor of those who play all 20 rounds. In each round we have a 50/50 chance to lose $1 or gain $1.50. Our maximum loss is $20 while our maximum gain is $30. And even if we lose, a $20 loss is hardly catastrophic. Yet brain-damaged players were more reasoned at the game than normal players. Undeterred by fear, brain-damaged players played more rounds of the game than normal players and won more money.

There is a lesson here for normal investors. Fear grips us when we watch our portfolios day by day and see so many losing days. Fear grips us even more strongly when we watch losses in our portfolios over many months or even years, as happened in 2008 and early 2009. Fear urges us to sell our stocks and invest the money in gold or put it under a mattress. Our emotional response is normal, but it gets in the way of wise behavior.


  • Guy Kaplanski and Haim Levy, “Sentiment and Stock Prices: The Case of Aviation Disasters,” Journal of Financial Economics 95 (2010): 174–201.
  • George Loewenstein, Elke Weber, Christopher Hsee, and Edward Welch, “Risk as Feelings,” Psychological Bulletin 127, no. 2 (2001), 267–286.
  • Nelson Schwartz and Graham Bowley, “In anxious times, investors seek cover in gold,” New York Times, November 10, 2010, p. A1.
  • Baba Shiv, George Loewenstein, Antoine Bechara, Hanna Damasio and Antonio Damasio, “Investment Behavior and the Negative Side of Emotion,” Psychological Science, vol. 16, no. 6 (2005): 435-439.
  • Meir Statman, What Investors Really Want, McGraw-Hill, New York, 2011
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