Charles Schwab’s YieldPlus funds promised returns higher than those of bonds at only slightly higher risk. Schwab classified the funds as ultrashort bond funds yet their holding were concentrated in mortgage backed securities which were decimated in the financial crisis.
The story of YieldPlus is only one example of the sad consequences of investors’ perennial search for returns higher than risk. A century ago investors sought such returns in stocks of mining companies. A magazine of the time told the story of a man, the son of a country doctor, who reached adulthood and was about to go into business. His father took him into the little back office, swung open the door of the rusty old safe, and took out a thick bundle of stock certificates. “My son,” he said, “you are going into business, and, I hope, will make some money. . . . When the time comes you will wish to buy some mining stock. Everyone does. When that time arrives come to see me. I will sell you some of mine. They are just as good, and will keep the money in the family.’”
Lessons from a century ago need repeating because we fail to learn. Almost half a million Italian retirees bought Argentine bonds in the 1990s because they offered higher interest rates than Italian bonds. The word default became an Italian word in 2001 when Argentina defaulted on its bonds. In 2005 Nestor Kirchner, Argentina’s president at the time, offered to pay bondholders less than a third of their investment. When Rodrigo de Rato of the International Monetary Fund called on Argentina to be respectful to bondholders, Kirchner mocked him, “It’s pathetic to listen to them sometimes.” “Enter now,” said Kirchner to the bondholders, “or it will be your problem.”
Banks sold $7 billion of reverse convertibles in 2008, promising returns higher than risks and collecting fees in the process. Reverse convertibles are bonds linked to stocks such as Apple and Johnson & Johnson. Investors were promised high interest rates during the life of the bonds in addition to their invested money when the bonds mature. Yet if the prices of the stocks to which the bonds are linked fall, investors get the stocks rather than their invested money. The high interest rates of reverse convertibles were enticing, but not all investors were aware of their risks. Lawrence Batlan, an 85-year-old retired radiologist, invested $400,000 in reverse convertibles linked to stocks such as Yahoo! and SanDisk. He lost $75,000 of it when stock prices declined. “I had no idea this could happen,” said Dr. Batlan. “I have no desire to own Yahoo! stock or the others.”
The “accumulator” was also an investment that was too good to be true, but this one was offered mainly to investors in Hong Kong. Accumulators obliged investors to buy shares of a stock at a fixed price. Investors profited if the price of the shares increased but lost if the price decreased. Yet the profit potential of investors was limited by a condition mandating that they sell their shares back to the issuer if their price increases to a specified level. The year 2008 was bad for investors in accumulators as stock prices declined and investors nicknamed accumulators “I kill you later.” The fundamental flaw . . . is something that I learned from my grandmother,” said Kathryn Matthews, an investment professional. “You get nothing for free.”
Next time when you see an investment with “plus” in its name, substitute “minus” in its place and see if it is still as enticing.
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?
“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
Think of an investor who had a $2 million portfolio in October 2007, $1 million in bonds and $1 million in stocks. Visit him again in February 2009 when his bonds are still worth $1 million but his stocks are worth only $500,000. What should he do now? Should he re-balance his portfolio? And, if so, how should he re-balance?
The initial portfolio was a 50/50 stock/bond portfolio and the standard advice is to re-balance back to a 50/50 portfolio by selling $250,000 worth of bonds and using the proceeds to buy $250,000 of stocks. This advice flows from two distinct reasons, one related to risk tolerance and the other to expected returns.
The risk tolerance reason is that an investor who has chosen a 50/50 portfolio has declared that his risk tolerance corresponds to an optimal 50/50 portfolio. The February 2009 portfolio is a 33.3/66.7 stock/bond portfolio, so it is sub-optimal. The portfolio can be made optimal again by restoring it to its 50/50 proportions.
The expected returns reason is that securities returns tend to be mean-reverting, so it is likely that the returns of stocks would be high relative to their long-term mean following periods where their returns were low relative to their mean, and the same is true for bonds. If our world of returns is a mean-reverting world then investors benefits by buying stocks just before their returns are especially high and selling them just before their returns are especially low. In a recent exchange of letters to the editor of the Financial Analysts Journal, William Bernstein argued that our world is a mean-reverting world while William Sharpe argued that it is not clear that this is our world.
The re-balancing answer of behavioral portfolio theory is quite different from these two answers. The investor with a $2 million portfolio chose to invest $1 million in stocks and $1 million in bonds because he has two distinct goals reflected in two mental accounts or “buckets.” Being-rich is one goal, and that is the purpose of the $1 million in stocks. Not-being-poor is the other goal, and that is the purpose of the $1 million in bonds. We can think of the not-being-poor goal as the goal of retirement at a basic level of comfort. We can think of the being-rich goal as the goal of enjoying luxuries in retirement or leaving a substantial bequest to children or charity.
A “behavioral investor” might well object to selling bonds from his not-being-poor mental account because the proceeds of such sales might be lost if invested in stocks, diminishing his basic level of comfort in retirement. Our investor has good reason to refuse the usual re-balancing advice and financial advisers should listen to him.
Eric Schurenberg explains why a “dull as dishwater” approach to investing is your best bet and references my research. Go here to check out the video.