Thursday, December 13, 2007

For Smooth Sailing, Winch up Your Financial Anchors

What's your anchor? If you don't know, it could be costing you.

There were some fascinating (but expected) results during a training program Frank and I ran for financial professionals this week. We asked one-half of attendees whether the Dow Index was likely to close above or below 18,500 in 12 months. The other half we asked whether the Dow would close above or below 10,250 in 12 months. After this first question, we asked each group to estimate where they thought the Dow would actually close in 12 months.

This is a classic experiment in which the irrelevant number mentioned in the first question profoundly affects the predictions made in the next one. It's called "anchoring" because people anchor their expectations to a recently seen, but irrelevant, number. In this case we had a positive anchor (18,500) and a negative one (10,250).

Amazingly, the average prediction for the high-anchor group was 15,644.
With the low anchor it was 13,792

The low-anchor group predicted a Dow gain of 2% over the next 12 months, while the high-anchor group predicted a 16% return. That's a 14% difference in range!

We get a spread about this wide whenever we do this experiment, and virtually every audience is shocked to see the size of the difference.

Anchoring affects analysts (who anchor on the most recent earnings estimates of other analysts), portfolio managers (who anchor on analysts' expectations), and individual investors (who anchor on IPO and recent or 52-week high and low prices).

Many investors anchored on an expectation of a 0.50% Fed rate cut this week. Ooops.

When expectations are anchored, then they can easily be disappointed, leading to emotional reactions that further impair judgment. It's a slippery slope.

Always good to be sure where you're standing (and what your anchor is).

Just some thoughts for improving self-understanding.

Happy Investing!

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