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Breaking the Mental Buck

June 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Should money funds be allowed to continue to price their shares by “buck” accounting, whereby the price of each share is fixed at one dollar? Or should they be compelled to price them by “mark-to-market” accounting, common to all other mutual funds, whereby changes in the market value of shares move their prices higher or lower than a dollar?

Today’s money fund agenda centers on mitigating systemic risks associated with money funds. These risks compelled the U.S. Treasury to offer a taxpayer guarantee on all money funds in September 2008, when the Reserve Primary money fund was forced to “break the buck,” setting the price of shares below a dollar.

A proposal to price money fund shares by mark-to-market accounting has been met with fierce opposition. Paul Schott Stevens of the Investment Company Institute wrote that “investors prize the stability, simplicity, and convenience” of money funds. David Hirschmann of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wrote that investors would flee from money funds burdened by “the complexity and cost of accounting” of mark-to-market funds. And Kenneth White, a Chicago investor, threatened to liquidate his money funds if their prices were set by mark-to-market accounting.

We cannot understand the passions underlying the money fund debate unless we understand the psychology that underlies the attraction of buck accounting. That psychology centers on our cognitive errors of mental accounting and hindsight, and our emotions of regret and pride. An understanding of the attraction of buck accounting would help us overcome it.

Money funds were introduced in the early 1970s to circumvent regulations that limited the rate of interest banks could pay. They soon turned into substitutes for bank checking accounts. Money fund investors received checkbooks similar to bank checkbooks and could write checks for use everywhere. But money funds were not a close enough substitute for checking accounts because they lacked the “no-loss” psychological benefit.

Investors who deposited a dollar in a checking account were assured that they would be able to withdraw a dollar the following day, week, or year. But money fund investors had no such assurance. A dollar invested in a money fund one day might be worth 98 cents the following day. Investors who contemplated buying a television set for $500 would have had to withdraw 510 shares of the money fund if its share price declined from $1 on the day of the purchase to 98 cents when their check was cashed. The extra ten shares registered as a loss in the minds of money fund investors.

Investing, whether in a stock or a money fund, marks a hopeful beginning. We place a stock into a mental account, record its $100 purchase price and hope to close the account at a gain, perhaps selling the stock at $150. As stock fate has it, the stock’s price plummets to $40 during the following month rather than increase to $150.

Losses make us feel stupid. Hindsight error misleads us into thinking that what is clear in hindsight was equally clear in foresight. We bought the stock at $100 because, in foresight, it seemed destined to go to $150. But now, in hindsight, we remember all the warning signs displayed in plain sight on the day we bought our stock. Interest rates were about to increase. The CEO was about to resign. A competitor was ready to introduce a better product.

The cognitive error of hindsight is accompanied by the emotion of regret. We kick ourselves for being so stupid and contemplate how much happier we would have been if only we had kept our $100 in our savings account or invested it in another stock that zoomed as our stock plummeted. Pride is at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from regret. Pride accompanies gains. We congratulate ourselves and feel proud for seeing in foresight that our $100 stock would soon zoom to $150. Mark-to-market accounting of money funds opens the door to both regret and pride every time we write a check, but regret is more painful than pride is pleasurable. It is no wonder that money fund investors prefer buck accounting over mark-to-market accounting, and money fund executives hear their voices.

In 1977, following much lobbying by mutual fund companies, the SEC approved the use of buck accounting such that the price of their shares remains at $1 even when the market value of the shares deviates from it. Managers of money funds promised not to “break the buck” and, at last, money funds seemed to have acquired the no-loss benefits of checking accounts.

The promise of managers of money funds not to break the buck was sincere but not guaranteed. The small print always said that the buck might be broken. Still, managers of money funds kept their promise for many years, on occasion paying from their own pockets so as not to break the buck. But when the financial crisis arrived in 2008 the managers of the Reserve fund announced that their fund contained securities of bankrupt Lehman Brothers and they must break the buck and set its shares to 97 cents. The development “is really, really bad,” said Don Phillips of Morningstar. “You talk about Lehman and Merrill having been stellar institutions, but breaking the buck is sacred territory.” This breaking of the buck was prominent among the events that led Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke to recommend drastic measures, including government insurance of money funds, fearing the panic that would ensue if money fund investors raced to withdraw their money.

The demise of Reserve fund is ironic because Bruce Bent, one of its founders, opposed buck accounting when it was considered in the 1970s. Bent feared that buck accounting would compel money fund managers to buy risky securities in attempts to provide higher returns than their competitors. In a 1978 letter to the SEC Bent wrote that buck accounting “presents the illusion of higher returns in times of declining interest rates” and makes money funds “appear to have overcome the risk” of fluctuating interest rates. Bent noted further that buck accounting would encourage money funds to buy risky securities that “pay higher interest rates than those which must achieve stability by exercising judgment…” Bent vowed not to buy such risky securities, but he broke his vow under the pressure of competition. This is why the Reserve fund held Lehman securities when Lehman went bankrupt. What started as an attempt to turn money funds into no-loss investments ended with very real losses.

Jeffrey Lacker, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, advocated mark-to-market accounting for money funds, noting that buck accounting promotes runs on money funds. I agree. Regret over losses is likely to seize money fund investors from time to time, but such regret is a small price to pay for a central block of a stable financial system.

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Why New Year’s resolutions often fail: A guest post by Kees Koedijk and Alfred Slager

January 4, 2011 Leave a comment

Thanks to Kees Koedijk and Alfred Slager for this guest post. Visit their blog here.

Top 10 stocks and funds to invest in for 2011 circulate widely. It’s a recurring theme with a predictable storyline at the end of the year. The analyst: “Well, we indicated that stock XYZ should be the best performing one this year, and it should have been the case, but it has not for good reasons.” Analysts then borrow the “deus ex machina”  plot device from the theatre (literally, “God out of the machine”), in which  a seemingly inextricable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the unexpected intervention of some new character. For analysts this usually boils down to central banks not behaving like they should, politicians meddling with economics or misplaced optimism or pessimism of consumers or companies.

So unless the investing public suffers from collective amnesia with a yearly cycle, the real merit of predicting is not the prediction itself. Maybe it’s a form of mating game in the investment industry. The analyst, bank or mutual fund signals with his prediction to the investor that he knows the intricate details of financial markets, and is therefore fully in control of the risks attached to an investment. And once you’re in control of the risks, then there is actually no risk attached, is there? An elegant way to play into investor’s permanent desire for free investment lunches, an important theme in Meir Statman’s insightful book “What Investors Really Want”.

Maybe institutional investors and pension trustees should be given a second chance for better New Year’s resolutions. If they’re smart, they won’t focus on predictions, but on understanding why predictions continually fail, and how to benefit from this insight. This requires delving more into the beliefs behind the economic theories, and how they affect your investment decisions, the central theme of our recently published book Investment Beliefs. A Positive Approach to Institutional Investing. The problem at hand is quite simple. Despite all the research done and money spent in the financial industry, diverging views persist in economics and finance. A solid theory, broad dataset and sound research methods should be able to resolve ongoing debates and lead to accurate predictions. Economists and researchers surely put an enormous effort into research, but resolving debates tends to move slowly. Economics and finance are tough subjects to investigate. Why is this?

A historic perspective comes in handy. Investing theory and practice have developed dramatically over the past five decades, yet as Andrew Lo argues, there still is no objective framework around for viewing capital markets and deciding how to apply these insights for investment purposes. Active management, passive management, absolute return strategies – all are different views of capital markets that happily co-exist. Yet none can be pinpointed as the right one. Theories in investments and finance simply do not have the same degree of confidence as theories in physical sciences. The main theories have not been road tested; basic premises are not conclusive. For example, is there any agreement on whether financial market pricing is efficient; the basis for passive management? Research findings are inconclusive. There is an increasing amount of evidence on “anomalies”, unexplained gaps between predictions and realizations. However, no workable alternative for the underlying theory has been formulated that can be put to good use on a large scale. Moreover, few investors are actually able to exploit these “anomalies” and turn them into higher returns.

So in the meantime, students and investment managers learn that efficient pricing exists, but observe and act otherwise in practice. Believers in inefficient markets usually invest in what they perceive as undervalued stocks, sectors or assets, and do appreciate market-timing. In a brilliant stroke of marketing, they have labeled themselves as “active” managers, ideally positioned for investors who want to be in control and want to win. Believers in efficient markets on the other hand focus on buying the index against the lowest costs possible: costs are after all a certain drag on your returns, while the free investment lunches pictured by the active managers have yet to materialize.

This discussion suggests that the smart, rational money is on passive investing. The reality is the other way around. The overwhelming share of equities is invested by active managers. Our experience is however that pension funds would make fundamentally different choices if they were aware of the uncertainties behind the economic and finance theories – after all, it boils down to what you believe in. We call this investment beliefs: an explicit view on how to interpret, and approach a debate in the financial markets. We covered active versus passive management as a noteworthy investment belief, but there are many other beliefs out there: on sustainability, risk premium, investment horizon, risk management- to name a few.

Investors simply have to deal with the fact that many debates never really reach a firm conclusion and keep haunting them. Proponents of active management have just as much ammunition in the form of anecdotal evidence or research to prove their case to sympathizers of passive management as the other way round. There is no single objective truth in the financial markets, just an accumulation of learning by doing and adapting to new realities. Investment beliefs address this uncertainty and make it manageable – not predictable.

So, chances are that the predictions will once again miss the mark. This shouldn’t worry investors, and certainly not prevent us from filling out the sweepstakes. The process of arriving at a prediction might well be more important than the prediction itself. Wouldn’t that be a great way to actually realize a New Year’s resolution?

Hope for Riches with Lottery Stocks

October 4, 2010 Leave a comment

On October 1, 2010, you could have bought a share of Fannie Mae (FNMA) for less than 28 cents. Many investors bought that day, and almost 3 million shares moved into the hands of buyers. Even more investors bought shares of Fannie Mae on September 17, 2010, when more than 78 million shares changed hands. “It’s not really a stock anymore — everyone knows this is going to zero,” said Bose T. George, a financial analyst at Keefe Bruyette & Woods. “It’s like a casino.”

Some who aspire to be rich can reasonably expect to reach their aspirations through steady savings invested in safe bonds. But risky investment in lottery tickets and lottery stocks offer many of us the only hope to reach our aspirations, whether millions in bank accounts, ample retirement incomes, or the means to help our children and grandchildren pay college tuition and buy homes of their own.

“I’ve dug so many holes for myself over the years,” said a lottery player, “that, realistically, winning the lottery may be my only ticket out.”  This lottery player’s perceptions of life and its chances are common. When asked about the most practical way to accumulate several hundred thousand dollars, more than half of surveyed Americans said: Save something each month for many years. But more than one in five said: Win the lottery, and most of these were poor.  Res Ball of the Ball Group, a research and advertising company, said: “We found something we called “lottery mentality.” We encountered people who thought it was a complete waste of time to save money. They figured they didn’t have enough money to do anything else, so why not spend the money on lottery tickets?” Lottery players sacrifice the utilitarian benefits of sure money for the emotional benefits of hope. So do football fans who bet on the success of their teams even when the odds favor their opponents.  Investors, like lottery players and football fans, often sacrifice money for hope.

The stock of Fannie Mae is a lottery stock. Lottery stocks, like lottery tickets, offer hope of winning large prizes. Stocks of bankrupt companies are prominent among lottery stocks. Such stocks usually cost only a few pennies yet carry hope of extraordinary returns if bankrupt companies come back to life. Individual investors are attracted to stocks of bankrupt companies, owning on average 90 percent of them. But stocks of bankrupt companies are losers on average, losing more than 28 percent of their value during the year.

What investors really want: Searching for beat-the-market money managers

September 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Think of investments as ingredients of a stew, some with fat returns and some with lean. Now think of the investment market as a giant well-mixed vat of stew that contains all investments. Some investors dip their ladles into the stew and fill them with fat and lean in proportions equal to the proportions in the market vat. These are index investors who buy index funds that contain all investments. Index investors pay the expenses of their funds, but they can easily find index funds whose expenses are very low, equivalent to a few teaspoons of stew taken out of their ladles. Index investors tend to be buy-and-hold investors who trade only infrequently, as when they invest savings from their paychecks into index funds during their working years and withdraw them in retirement.

While index investors are satisfied with returns equal to risks, beat-the-market investors search for returns higher than risks. Some beat-the-market investors choose handfuls of investments and trade them frequently, hoping to fill their ladles with more fat returns than in the ladles of index investors. Others buy beat-the-market mutual funds, exchange traded funds, or hedge funds, hoping that their managers would find stocks with fat returns. But not all beat-the-market investors can be above average. The ladles of index investors are filled with average amounts of fat returns. If some beat-the-market investors fill their ladles with above-average fat returns, other beat-the-market investors are left with below-average fat returns in their ladles. Moreover, the expenses of beat-the-market investors are higher than those of index investors because beat-the-market investors pay higher costs of trading and the higher costs of beat-the-market managers. Beat-the-market costs are substantial. By one estimate, investors would have saved more than $100 billion each year by investing in low-cost index funds and foregoing attempts to beat-the-market by on their own or by paying money managers to do it for them.

The beat-the-market puzzle

Why don’t beat-the-market investors abandon their game and join index investors? One part of the answer is easy. While average beat-the-market investors cannot beat the market, some beat-the-market investors are above average. Professional investors, such as mutual fund and hedge fund managers, regularly beat the market. Stocks bought by beat-the-market mutual fund managers had higher returns than stocks sold by them. And hedge fund managers are famous for the billion-dollar paychecks they earn by beating the market. But investors in beat-the-market mutual funds trail investors in index funds because the costs of beat-the-market mutual funds detract from the returns passed on to investors more than managers add to them. Hedge funds are riskier than investors believe and the returns they pass on to investors are lower than investors believe.

Highly intelligent investors might be able to beat the market, but their success is far from assured because intelligent investors are not always wise. Harvard staff members are intelligent and so are Harvard undergraduate students with SAT scores in the 99th percentile as are Wharton MBA students with SAT scores at the 98th percentile. Staff and students received information about past performance and fees of index funds that track the S&P 500 Index. But the information about the funds varied by the dates when the funds were established and the dates when the funds’ prospectuses were published.

Wise investors faced with a choice among index funds following the S&P 500 Index choose the index fund with the lowest fees since these index funds are otherwise as identical as identical cereal boxes. But nine out of ten staff and college students chose index funds with higher fees and so did eight out of ten MBA students. Staff and students chased returns instead, choosing funds with the highest historical returns, apparently assuming that these offer returns higher than risks.

Insiders Deepen the Beat-the-Market Puzzle

Some investors have access to inside information, such as information about mergers being negotiated or disappointing earnings about to be revealed. Investors with inside information include corporate executives and investors with links to executives, including investment bankers and hedge fund managers. Members of Congress have inside information as well. Only one-third of American senators bought or sold stocks in any one year during the boom years of the 1990s but trading senators did very well. While corporate insiders beat the market by six percentage points each year on average, trading senators beat it by 12 percentage points. “I don’t think you need much of an imagination to realize that they’re in the know,” said Alan Ziobrowski, one of the authors of the study.

The success of insiders in the beat-the-market game only deepens its puzzle. Insiders fill their investment market ladles with above-average proportions of fat returns, while index investors fill their ladles with average proportions of fat returns. This leaves below-average proportions of fat returns in the ladles of outsiders in the beat-the-market game, even if we set aside the cost of playing the game.

A two-part solution to the beat-the-market puzzle

Why don’t outside investors quit the beat-the-market game? Why do investors search for money managers who would bring them ladles of beat-the-market returns even after managers have scooped expenses and compensation from the ladles? One part of the answer is in cognitive errors and emotions which mislead us into thinking and feeling that we or our managers can easily beat the market. The other part is in what we really want from our investments, including our desire to play the investment game and win.

Framing errors are some of the cognitive errors which mislead us into thinking that beating the market is easy. In particular, we fail to frame the investment market as a vat of investment stew where relatively high returns for one investor imply relatively low returns for another. You might object, noting that there are many investment vats rather than one. Some investment vats, such as the private equities vat, might have more fat returns in them than the vat of public equities. Private equity vats, unlike public equities vats, can be consumed only by large investors, undisturbed by hordes of small investors. Yet investors in private equities are far from assured that their managers would share the fat. Tom Perkins, a wealthy manager of a venture capital, tells about Harry, one of his investors, who asked him how he can live with the risk of his investments. “Well, Harry,” laughed Perkins, “it’s your money!”

Emotions join cognitive errors in persuading investors that beating the market is easy. Individual investors are often unrealistically optimistic, but they are regularly joined by professional investors who are flattered as sophisticated players just before they are fleeced. Lloyd Blankfein, the chief of Goldman Sachs, described investors who lost to Goldman at the mortgage securities game as sophisticated investors. But Phil Angelides, who questioned Blankfein at the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, said: “Well, I’m just going to be blunt with you. It sounds to me a little bit like selling a car with faulty brakes, and then buying an insurance policy on the buyer of those cars, the pension funds who have the life savings of police officers, teachers.” Jeff Macke, an investment advisor, elaborated: “Of course [Goldman Sachs traders] know more than the other guys,” he said to Paul Solman of PBS’ Newshour. And, if they’re selling it, well, you probably don’t want to be a buyer.” Macke failed to persuade Solman. “But pension funds don’t bring in the math whizzes, the quants, the people that Goldman Sachs has,” said Solman, “They’re no match for Goldman Sachs’ salespeople or traders.” Macke was ready when Solman was done. “Generally speaking, they aren’t,” said Macke. “So, what is a pension fund doing involved in these securities?” Unrealistic optimism is a likely answer. Pension fund managers believed that they had a realistic chance to win their game when, in truth, they were unrealistically optimistic.

What investors really want

J.H.B., the anonymous author of a 1930 book, Watch Your Margin: An Insider Looks at Wall Street, is speaking with W. E. Woodward, his friend:

“Do you know why people go into stock speculation?” asked J.H.B.

“To make money,” answered Woodward.

“Not at all,” said J.H.B., “They go in for the pleasure of getting something for nothing….What they want is a thrill. That is why we…drink bootleg whisky, and kiss the girls, and take new jobs. We want thrills. It’s perfectly human, but Wall Street is a poor place to look for thrills, for the simple reason that thrills in Wall Street are very expensive.”

J.H.B. was speaking in 1930, when Prohibition was the law, and whisky was bootlegged. The world has changed greatly since then, but our wants remain the same. Woodward is not entirely wrong. We do want to make money from investing and speculating. But J.H.B. is surely right. We want pleasure from investing and speculating, and we want thrills from playing the beat-the-market game and winning it. Wall Street is still a poor place to look for thrills and Wall Street thrills remain expensive, but we are willing to pay the price.

Investments offer three kinds of benefits: utilitarian, expressive, and emotional, and we face tradeoffs as we choose among them. The utilitarian benefits of investments are in what they do for our pocketbooks. The expressive benefits of investments are in what they convey to us and to others about our values, tastes, and status. Some express their values by investing in companies that treat their employees well. Others express their status by investing in hedge funds. And the emotional benefits of investments are in how they make us feel. Bonds make us feel secure and stocks give us hope.

Profits are the utilitarian benefits of winning the beat-the-market game, and cognitive errors and emotions mislead us into thinking that winning is easy. But we are also drawn into the game by the promise of expressive and emotional benefits. Indeed, we are willing to forego the utilitarian benefits of profits for the expressive and emotional benefits of playing the beat-the-market game and hoping to win that game.

Dutch investors care about the expressive and emotional benefits of investing more than they care about its utilitarian benefits. They tend to agree with the statement “I invest because I like to analyze problems, look for new constructions, and learn” and the statement “I invest because it is a nice free-time activity” more than they agreed with the statement “I invest because I want to safeguard my retirement.” German investors who find investing enjoyable trade twice as much as other investors. And a quarter of American investors buy stocks as a hobby or because it is something they enjoy.

Mutual Funds magazine interviewed Charles Schwab, the founder of the investment company bearing his name. Schwab said: “If you get… an S&P Index return, 11% or 12% probably compounded for 10, 15, 20 years, you’ll be in the 85th percentile of performance. Why would you screw it up?”

The interviewer went on to ask Schwab why he thought people invested in actively managed funds at all. “It’s fun to play around,” answered Schwab. “People love doing that, they love to find winners… it’s human nature to try to select the right horse. It’s fun. There’s much more sport to it than just buying an index fund.”

It is often hard to distinguish facts from cognitive errors and even harder to distinguish cognitive errors from wants of expressive and emotional benefits. We should empathize with fellow investors who do not share our wants. Some of us are passionate players of the investment game, willing to pay commissions for trades, subscriptions for newsletters that promise to foresee the market, and fees for money managers that promise to beat it. I empathize with their passions even if I don’t share them. Yet I see no benefit in cognitive errors and emotions that mislead us into sacrificing utilitarian benefits for no benefits at all. No benefit comes from playing the beat-the-market game because we fail to understand that it is difficult to win. And no benefit comes from failing to make wise choices among utilitarian, expressive, and emotional benefits. We can increase the sum of our benefits if we understand our investment wants, overcome our cognitive errors and misleading emotions, weigh the tradeoffs between benefits, and choose wisely.