This article was originally published in Inspired Investor.“A lot of people with high IQs are terrible investors because they’ve got terrible temperaments. You need to keep raw, irrational emotion under control.” – Charlie Munger.
I love Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s business partner. He’s my all-time favourite thinker in the investment world. I estimate his intelligence to be approximately 10.5 times mine (though people who know both of us say that is a very conservative figure).
After spending the last 35 years watching people handle their portfolios, I can assure you his above quote is, as usual for him, bang on.
Emotions are many investors’ biggest enemies.
It’s so difficult not to give in to the powerful pulls of fear and greed.
For example, significant declines in the stock market are scary. Very. They are fear inducing. And when emotions kick in, humans naturally extrapolate the short-term trend and assume it will go on for a long time. Maybe indefinitely. That’s how we’re wired. And once we’ve decided things are going to stay bad, or get worse, it’s remarkably easy to feed our confirmation bias. Doom-and-gloom forecasts are everywhere. Naysayers abound. Our summary statements are screaming at us: “How can you let this go on, you fool?!”
Our fears are, therefore, magnified. They can become intense, even overwhelming.
It’s remarkably easy for a slight anxious feeling to grow to a full-out panic. A panic that can be eliminated only by ending the cause of the initial pain. How?
By stopping the portfolio’s decline.
By selling low.
By breaking with your long-term plan.
By letting emotions rule your investment decisions and processes instead of reason and discipline.
So, the obvious question is: How does an investor control her/his emotions and avoid making “raw, irrational” decisions?
Well, interestingly, I think I’m in a uniquely good position to answer that question. Not because I’ve read dozens of books on behavioural economics (though I have — what a super-exciting guy!), but because I’ve had front-row seats watching a number of successful investors through the years — investors who’ve handled their emotions exceptionally well. Yes, the theories and clever experiments of the various authors have been enlightening, but nothing beats real-life evidence, battle-tested proof of what truly works and what doesn’t.
So what have I learned?
Well, we can’t cover it all here (they didn’t want to give me the whole magazine), but I’ll share two important lessons.
Let’s start by looking at an oft-pushed approach that frequently doesn’t work. The late, great Stephen Covey taught us the importance of injecting time between the stimulus and response. He preached hitting the pause button when you’re flustered, giving your emotions a chance to settle down. Then, in a calmer state, rationally examining your options. Many investment educators have endorsed this idea when dealing with nerve-wracking market downturns.
Sounds wise. Who could argue with it?
Covey’s outstanding advice works quite effectively when dealing with a triggering event, a one-off stimulus. For example, it’s very prudent not to react rashly when your son tells you that he missed his final exam. Best to take a few moments. Actually, best to take a few hours. Days even.
But markets are dynamic. Yesterday’s gut-wrenching decline often continues today. And tomorrow. Now suddenly you’re even more agitated, more fearful. And here’s the important part: You’re also mad. At whom? Yourself. “Why didn’t I sell when my gut first told me to? What an idiot I am. I should have trusted my instincts.”
Fear mixed with anger seldom leads to good decisions.
Clearly, time, on its own, doesn’t always do the trick. Other techniques are needed.
And the best of the bunch, hands down, is to be well educated about market volatility. To understand that it’s not only a constant presence but also that it’s a positive. A positive? Am I crazy? No, I’m not, thank you very much. The long-term returns offered by equities wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the fact that investors have to put up with the roller-coaster ride.
Understanding that is key. Recognizing that volatility (including major pullbacks) is natural, inevitable and, again, even positive is crucial to dealing with its emotional impact. It brings perspective to your thinking. It makes you focus more on the long term, on your investment plan. The noise of the market’s current struggles is muted by this knowledge.
So, best advice? Obviously, it’s get this knowledge! Become a student of the market. Read. Balance your following of the day-to-day moves and news from your portfolio companies with reading from the classic investment books. Look to history to understand the present and plan for the future.
It’s not a coincidence that the investors who are able to follow Munger’s advice and keep “raw, irrational emotion under control” are often the same ones who read everything they can from Munger.
Books may be your wisest investment. (Okay, I am a tad biased.)
This article was originally published by RBC Direct Investing Inc. in Inspired Investor. RBC Direct Investing Inc. and Royal Bank of Canada are separate corporate entities which are affiliated.
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