Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Wicked Garden Effect (TM)

I don't know if you've noticed, but it's been a bumpy ride for "The Market" so far this year.

And by bumpy, I mean horribly nauseating.

Many of us have individual holdings that have dropped 20%.

And many of us have holdings that have dropped a lot more than that.

Now, if you managed to hit the eject button early on and have resisted the urge to grasp at the knives falling all around us, I offer you my sincere congratulations. You've held fast to Warren Buffet's first rule of investing, "Don't lose money."

But if you're Un-Buffet-Like (and most of us are), you may be holding some positions that are way down. And if you need to clear up some cash, you may be put in the unenviable position of having to sell stocks when you'd prefer not to.

The question becomes; which stocks do you sell?

Here's a question: Imagine you've got two stocks in your portfolio. Stock A is up 25% from your buying price. Stock B is down (ugh) 25% from what you paid for it. Given just this information, which one would you be most inclined to sell?

What does your gut tell you to do in this situation?

Go ahead and think about it for a moment.

I'll wait.

Which one did you pick?

If I were a gambling man (and I am), I'm going to say you picked stock B. Most people do.

Now, Stock B may indeed be the best choice to sell. We have no way of knowing in this scenario.

But reflect on the reasons, the inner justifications for your decision above.

You may find yourself thinking things like.."It'll come back" or "Now is a bad time to sell" or "I can lock up a gain if I sell stock A" or "Why didn't Dirk Benedict get more work after he did The A Team... he was cool as hell on that show?")

Sorry. Got a little off track on that last one.

The desire to sell the winners in our portfolio, but hold the losers is a phenomenon that we at MarketPsych call "The Wicked Garden Effect."

We call it that because it's the investing equivalent of clipping all the flowers in a garden, and watering the weeds. And in my book, this is the worst mistake investors make. Over time you are left with a garden that is overrun by weeds, and the flowers have long been gone. The effect is devastating.

You may recognize this tendency in yourself or even recognize a couple of accounts that have become like Wicked Gardens.

Behavioral finance would cite the concept of Loss Aversion as the culprit. And they'd be right. But I view it as allowing our emotional needs (e.g., to feel good about ourselves, to not be a "loser") to override our financial needs (e.g., to invest in the best companies, to make money.)

Unfortunately, the price for feeling okay about ourselves often comes at the expense of our returns.

How do you defend against the Wicked Garden Effect?

1) Be aware of this powerful tendency.

2) Use solid objective criteria on which stocks to sell. (This is tough. It requires research and thinking... do it anyway.)

3) Identify the emotional need behind the sell decision and get some leverage on yourself. The fool isn't the one who made a mistake. The fool is the one who can't admit it.

For those who are interested, MarketPsych does (fun and interesting) investing workshops, trainings and presentations that explore this and other concepts.

Happy Investing.


1 comment:

Lafayette said...

Hello, a little question from a brazilian value investor (so may I be excused if I miswrite sth?)...

That reasoning is, indeed, common in a lot of books about financial behavior. However, consider this:

The investor bought both A and B stocks after running a thorough, conservative, DCF analisys and found them both to be trading at a 50% discount.

The underlying fundamentals have not changed, and, as you said, A is 25% up and B is 25% down.

How could I decide to sell B knowing it is soooo undervalued?
If I do trust my analisys perhaps I should sell A and buy B.

I must add that here in Brazil, the small investor will not be taxed in stock market capital gains, under certain conditions.

That is why i just cannot agree with that reasoning.

Regards, Lafayette