Investor Behavior

Seeing is believing… or is it?

The graphic below is an illusion. When you look at the graphic in one place it appears to stop turning, while other areas continue to turn. Moving your eye to different sectors of the graphic produces the same result – the part of the graphic you are focused on stops turning while the remainder continues to turn.

Except for one thing… nothing in the graphic is really turning, is it? That’s what makes it an illusion. This tells us that we cannot rely on our perceptions, intuitions or gut feelings alone.

It has been shown that investors tend to rely on their perceptions, making the same investing mistakes over and over. Fortunately, studies by some of the leading academics in the field of behavioral finance have shown that investors’ irrational behavior tends to be systematic.

Virtually everyone reacts the same way when placed in certain situations. However, since they tend to do it systematically, it is possible to explain why they act in this manner.

The point here is that illusions must be identified early and counteracted in an appropriate manner.

Investment decisions are influenced by a number of emotional and psychological factors, and this has given rise to the field of behavioral finance. Researchers and academics in this relatively new field attempt to better understand and explain how emotions and perceptions influence investors and the decision-making process.

Investor Behavior
The Efficient-Market Theory

The efficient-market theory states that security prices efficiently in corporate all public information. Supporters of the efficient-market theory contend that if information about a particular security is publicly available to one investor, it is available to all investors. Consequently, the price of a security reflects its true investment value at all times.

Asset allocation relies on the fact that markets are efficient and that investors behave in rational, predictable ways. However, investors do not always behave rationally—rational behavior is not as widespread as one may believe. In fact, investors can actually end up being their own worst enemies.

Patterns of Investor Irrationality

Consider all of the complex financial decisions faced by investors today. Without experience in different market environments or knowledge of market history, how might many of these investors make their financial decisions? Potentially through their perceptions or based on their emotions. For this reason it is imperative that investors understand and combat the myriad of illusions they may be prone to.

  • Overconfidence: Rating oneself as above average when it comes to selecting investments.
  • Hindsight Bias: Believing that unpredictable past events, in retrospect, were obvious and predictable.
  • Short-Term Focus: Inappropriately focusing on short-term risk versus long-term risk.
  • Regret: Having illogical feelings of guilt because of a poor outcome.
  • Mental Accounting: Mentally compartmentalizing investments while ignoring the aggregate portfolio.
  • Hot-Hand Fallacy: Perceiving trends where none exist and consequently taking action on this faulty observation.



When an investor suffers from overconfidence, he or she rates oneself as above average when making investment decisions. Being overconfident often leads to overestimating the probability of good outcomes.

Overconfidence can cause people to focus primarily on the upside of investments, while underestimating the probability of poor outcomes for events over which they have no control.

In many studies on this particular investor behavior, the following question is often asked: “Consider your driving ability in relation to others on the road. Are you a better driver than average?”

Most surveys show that 80% to 90% of drivers consider themselves above average; this is clearly impossible.

In “Behaving Badly,” a 2006 study conducted by Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein Securities Limited, 300 professional fund managers were presented with a number of questions, and one related to overconfidence. In an attempt to see just how over-optimistic fund managers were, they were asked: “Are you above average at your job?”

Some 74% of the sample thought themselves above average at their jobs. Many wrote comments along the lines of “I know everyone says they are, but I really am!” Of the remaining 26% most thought they were average, but very few, if any, said they were below average.

Overconfidence: False Perception

Consider the historical performance of emerging-markets stocks from 2003 through 2008. For the first five years, stocks in these regions produced impressive returns — generating double-digit percentage gains. Based on this stellar track record, what would a typical investor have expected in 2008? More of the same, correct? Well, 2008 has been quite dismal for investors in emerging-markets stocks, as they lost a little bit more than half of their investment — 53.2%, to be exact.

One period of returns may be enough to create overconfidence among investors. Investors should avoid overestimating their ability to predict future outcomes, basing their decisions on past trends or performance.

Concentrating on only the upside potential while dismissing the possibility of poor performance can be quite dangerous. It is important to take a long-term view when investing.

“Concentrating on only the upside potential while dismissing the possibility of poor performance can be quite dangerous.”
“Investors shouldn’t let short-term swings in the markets affect their view of the future.”
Hindsight Bias

When an investor suffers from hindsight bias, he or she believes that unpredictable events in the past were inevitable. Some psychologists refer to hindsight bias as the “I knew that was going to happen” effect. This is quite apparent every day after the stock market closes. Market analysts on television or through other media outlets explain with confidence why the market performed the way it did. Similar behavior is displayed by those covering sporting events: after a game has ended, there are people who claim the outcome was quite predictable.

If you can correctly recall your beliefs of the day before an event, you are in a minority. Most people can rarely recreate what they thought. Most are honestly deceived and exaggerate earlier estimates. Investors may become angry and regretful about failing to avoid what appears to have been an obvious outcome. This pattern of behavior often tends to promote another investor bias: overconfidence.

Many people claim to have seen the writing on the wall when it comes to various historical bubbles, such as the technology bubble of the early 2000s or the recent real estate bubble. However, when a so-called obvious bubble was beginning to take shape, it most likely would not have heightened and eventually burst if most people had known of the eventual outcome.

Short-Term Focus

When an investor suffers from short-term focus, he or she inappropriately focuses on short-term risk as opposed to long-term risk. Given today’s technology and instant access to information via the Internet, it is inevitable that many investors will check their investment performance on a frequent basis.

Most investors know why they are investing: they have long-term goals that they are trying to achieve. Yet, they often exhibit very short-term behavior, such as frequent trading and/or overreacting to the short-term volatility of investments. It is imperative that these individuals resist the temptation to behave as though their time horizon is far shorter than it truly is.

Short-Term Focus: Avoiding Potential Near-Term Losses

In a recent study by professors at the Anderson School at UCLA and the University of Chicago, respectively, a group of defined contribution plan participants were divided into two groups and each group was told they could choose between only two funds, A and B. They were then given some information about the historical returns of these funds and were asked to decide, based on this information, how much of their retirement money they would invest in each fund. The returns for the funds were derived from actual stock and bond returns. The manipulation in the experiment was the manner in which the fund returns were displayed.

One group was shown a distribution of one-year returns for both stocks and bonds. The other group was shown a distribution of 30-year returns. The academics predicted that subjects viewing the one-year chart would invest less in stocks than subjects viewing the 30-year return chart.

They based their forecast on the fact that the one-year chart accentuated the perceived risk of investing in stocks. They stated that over a one-year period, the likelihood of stocks underperforming bonds is about a third, while over a 30-year period the likelihood is about 95%.

The results found that the group looking at the distribution of one-year returns allocated their portfolios much more conservatively: 60% to bonds and 40% to stocks. In contrast, the group that saw the 30-year return distribution allocated their portfolios more aggressively: 10% to bonds and 90% to stocks. Exposure to frequency of returns tends to affect an investor’s tolerance for risk.

Short-Term Focus: Coping with Near-Term Fluctuations

It’s tempting for investors to monitor their investment accounts on a regular basis. Instant access to real-time quotes and a barrage of media reports on daily stock market fluctuations can make it difficult for investors with a long-term investment horizon to stay focused on their goals. In reality, these daily market movements may not be as extreme as they seem. As investors look longer term, their perception often changes.

Short-term market fluctuations can be quite volatile, and the probability of realizing a loss within any given day is high. However, the likelihood of realizing a loss has historically decreased over longer holding periods. The graph illustrates that while the probability of losing money on a daily basis over the past 20 years was 46%, the probability dropped dramatically when analyzing an annual time period—25%. Periodic review of an investment portfolio is necessary, but investors shouldn’t let short-term swings affect their view of the future.


Investors often react in an emotional manner after realizing an error in judgment has been made. When an investor suffers from regret, he or she displays disproportionate and illogical feelings over a poor outcome.

Regret: Action versus Inaction

Consider the situation of each of the following investors. Investor A purchased shares in Company ABC on Jan. 1st. This investor consequently sold the shares at the end of April because of the flat performance of the company. Investor B considered purchasing shares in Company ABC on the same day Investor A sold his shares, but after much consideration decided to take a pass. As the chart illustrates, Company ABC performed extremely well from May through December. Which investor is unhappier as a result of their decision?

Logically, the economic outcome is the same and therefore both investors should have the same amount of regret. However, studies have shown that the regret of having done something (commission) is greater than the regret of not having done anything (omission). Therefore, Investor A experiences more regret than Investor B.

“Investors who regret the opportunities they missed tend to take more risks than people who regret attempts that failed.” 
“When mental accounting gets in the way of making sound financial decisions, there’s a problem.”

In an unpublished study by two prominent academics in the field of behavioral finance, 100 wealthy investors were asked to bring to mind the financial decision they regretted most. The majority of participants reported their greatest regret was from something that they had done. Those who reported a regret of not having done something were shown to take on more risk. They generally held an unusually high proportion of their portfolio in stocks. In summary, people who regret the opportunities they missed tend to take more risks than people who regret attempts that failed.

Mental Accounting

When an investor suffers from mental accounting, he or she will mentally compartmentalize investments and not look at the portfolio as a whole. When mental accounting gets in the way of making sound financial decisions, there is a problem.

When clients view individual investments with a narrow perspective (in a vacuum) they are less likely to include various asset classes in their portfolios. This is especially evident when trying to explain the benefit of including international investments. They perceive these investments to be too risky and fail to consider the potential diversification benefit such an asset class can provide.

However, it is important to note that some mental accounting may be helpful for clients. For example, if it is helpful for clients to mentally account for investments in terms of the goals they are trying to achieve, such as retirement or college savings, mental accounting could be warranted. This may help force them to make periodic contributions.

Diversification does not eliminate the risk of investment losses.

Mental Accounting: Sum of the Parts

Different types of investments perform differently from one another, which has made it possible to lower the risk of volatile assets by combining them with other types of investments.

Individually, each component in a portfolio has its own risk and return characteristics. While the relative safety of bonds or cash may be comforting, these investments may not provide the long-term growth potential many investors seek. On the other hand, stocks may provide the greatest return, but they are more risky than bonds.

Focusing only on international or small stocks, for example, may leave investors feeling a little uncomfortable because of volatility. However, as the image illustrates, by concentrating on the whole portfolio, an investor would have experienced a risk level that was similar to bonds and yet would have achieved a return comparable to stocks.

Hot-Hand Fallacy

When an investor suffers from hot-hand fallacy, he or she perceives trends where none exist and then takes action on these erroneous impressions. People tend to look for patterns and attribute trends to methods other than simply chance.

The concept of “hot hand” is taken from a study done on the performance of basketball players. The study analyzed the outcomes of players’ shots in hundreds of games. While basketball fans believe that a player’s chances of hitting a basket are greater following a hit than following a miss, the study concluded that the outcomes of both field goal and free throw attempts were largely independent of the outcome of the previous attempt.

When selecting a money manager, a one-year return could cause investors to fire their current money manager in favor of the “hot” manager. This can lead to dangerous assumptions and predictions when investors should be focusing on the long-term track record of a particular money manager.

Hot-Hand Fallacy: Asset-Class Winners and Losers

It is impossible to predict which asset class will be the best or worst performing in any given year. The performance of any given asset class can have drastic periodic changes. This image below illustrates the annual performance of various asset classes in relation to one another over the past 15 years. In times when one asset class dominates all others, as was the case for large stocks in the late 1990s, it is easy to ignore the fact that historical data shows it is impossible to predict the winners for any given year.

Investors betting on another stellar performance for large stocks in 1999 were certainly disappointed, as small stocks rose from the worst performing asset class in 1998 to the best performing one in 1999. Similarly, international stocks were the top performers from 2004 to 2007, but disastrously sank to the worst performing position in 2008. These types of performance reversals are evident throughout this example.

A well-diversified portfolio may allow investors to mitigate some of the risks associated with investing. By investing a portion of a portfolio in a number of different asset classes, portfolio volatility may be reduced.

Hot-Hand Fallacy: Chasing Fund Performance

Investor return, also known as asset-weighted return, factors in the timing of investors’ purchases and sales. It takes into account the fact that not all of a fund’s investors bought it at the beginning of a period and held it until the end. Therefore, investor return depicts the return earned by a fund’s typical investor. Investor returns support the theories about investors’ poor timing.

Some fund companies develop numerous trendy funds that tend to attract investors chasing whatever is hot, and otherwise do little to encourage a long-term investment perspective. These types of funds tend to produce relatively poor investor returns. On the other hand, most funds with consistently superior investor returns are from shops that encourage long-term investing and discourage short-term trading.


As the preceding images and commentary illustrated, investor misconceptions can be quite dangerous. In explaining asset allocation concepts and constructing an asset-allocation policy, identifying and understanding such investor misperceptions is critical.

It is also essential to find techniques like strategic asset allocation and portfolio rebalancing to counter these misperceptions and to educate investors to view markets and investing in a more rational and productive manner.

In 2002, Equitas Capital Advisors, LLC was established as a unique company that blends the resources of a large global corporation with the flexibility of a small boutique firm. The registered service mark of Equitas Capital Advisors is Engineering Financial Solutions® and the purpose of Equitas is to design, build, and deliver investment solutions to meet the goals and objectives of our investors. Equitas Capital Advisors, LLC located in New Orleans, has over 200 years of combined investment management consulting experience providing professional investment management services to investors such as foundations, endowments, insurance companies, oil companies, universities, corporate retirement plans, and high net worth family offices.

Disclosures and Disclaimers:
Above information is for illustrative purposes only and has been obtained from reliable sources but no guarantee is made with regard to accuracy or completeness. It is not an offer to sell or solicitation to buy any security. The specific securities used are for illustrative purposes only and not a recommendation or solicitation to purchase or sell any individual security.

Equitas Capital Advisors, LLC is registered as an investment advisor with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and only transacts business in states where it is properly registered, or is excluded or exempted from registration requirements. SEC registration does not constitute an endorsement of the firm by the Commission nor does it indicate that the advisor has attained a particular level of skill or ability.

Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date, but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author on the date of publication and are subject to change. This publication does not involve the rendering of personalized investment advice.

Charts and references to returns do not represent the performance achieved by Equitas Capital Advisors, LLC, or any of its clients.

Asset allocation and diversification do not assure or guarantee better performance and cannot eliminate the risk of investment losses.

All investment strategies have the potential for profit or loss. There can be no assurances that an investor’s portfolio will match or outperform any particular benchmark. Past performance does not guarantee future investment success.