How Investors Miss Big Profits

by Louis Harvey

How Investors Miss Big Profits Splash image

Back in 1993, a curious thought crossed my mind while analyzing the federal regulations that were new at the time.

Mutual funds were permitted to report investment returns for one, three, five and 10 years (“alpha”), but how many investors actually kept their investments unchanged for those specific periods? If all investors did not hold on to their investments for those precise periods, then they had to be doing better or worse than was being reported.

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Louis Harvey is the president of DALBAR Inc., the financial community’s leading independent expert for evaluating, auditing and rating business practices, customer performance, product quality and service.
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Alpha is a measure of performance on a risk-adjusted basis. Alpha takes the volatility (price risk) of a mutual fund and compares its risk-adjusted performance to a benchmark index. The excess return of the fund relative to the return of the benchmark index is a fund’s alpha. Simply stated, alpha represents the value that a portfolio manager adds to or subtracts from a fund’s return. Investors’ alpha is the value a retail investor adds to or subtracts from the alpha delivered by the portfolio manager. The return of the respective index is considered to be zero alpha, so any excess over the index is considered positive investor alpha.

I developed a calculation that would measure whether mutual fund investors were actually earning more or less than the reported alpha. In 1994, DALBAR issued the first Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior (QAIB), showing that investors had severely underperformed the average mutual fund alpha! This underperformance continues to this day.

Investors were actually missing much of the alpha that mutual funds had earned. Using the S&P 500 index to approximate the returns that equity mutual funds produced, investors were leaving between 10.97% and 4.32% on the table, as Table 1 shows.

This shocking finding of underperformance led to research to understand how and why millions of investors were missing so much of the alpha and, ultimately, what they could do to capture more of the profits that funds were earning.

Buying High and Selling Low

The first breakthrough came when we discovered how long investors kept their money in equity mutual funds. If the money was not invested, then the profits would be lost. We found that instead of holding investments for 20 years or more, investors were in and out in as little as two to three years. It was clear that investors had to remain invested for a longer time period if they were to capture more of the alpha of mutual fund managers.

We then discovered the pattern of behavior that led to the short time horizon. It was simple enough. We found that investors withdrew funds in greater volume following a market decline, thus losing much of the profits they had earned. This meant that mutual fund investors were selling investments long after the large institutions had taken their profits!

Almost as destructive as withdrawing in a down market was waiting for the market to recover to start investing again. Yes, we proved by our investigations that investors were adding to their investments when the prices were highest and withdrawing when prices were low.

This pattern was repeated month after month since 1984, which was as far back as the data we had allowed us to analyze. Months of down markets were followed by outflows and after months of up markets, the inflows accelerated.

Equity Fund
1998* 17.18 6.71 -10.47
1998* 17.90 7.25 -10.65
1999* 18.01 7.23 -10.78
2000* 16.29 5.32 -10.97
2001* 14.51 4.17 -10.34
2002* 12.22 2.57 -9.65
2003 12.98 3.51 -9.47
2004 13.20 3.70 -9.50
2005 11.90 3.90 -8.00
2006 11.80 4.30 -7.50
2007 11.81 4.48 -7.33
2008 8.35 1.87 -6.48
2009 8.20 3.17 -5.03
2010 9.14 3.83 -5.31
2011 7.81 3.49 -4.32

Reasons for the Irrational Behavior

But why would mutual fund investors act so irrationally? Were they being advised to do this? After interviewing several hundred investors after market downturns, the finding was clear. Investors decided to get out of their investments to avoid further losses. They lacked the confidence that the market would rise again and restore the value that once was theirs. This phenomenon was later described as the psychological behavior of “loss aversion.”

On the other hand, confidence was restored after months of rising markets and at that point the inflows resumed. This phenomenon was later attributed to the psychological behaviors of “herding” and “media response.”

1 Loss Aversion Expecting to find high returns with low risk. Loss aversion causes the investor to search for investments that don’t exist and results in either taking no action or later discovering that the selected investment fails to meet the expectation. The effect is often selling the investment at an imprudent time, which adversely affects the alpha that professional investment managers create.
2 Narrow Framing Making decisions without considering all implications. The result is quick decision-making with the consequence that facts are uncovered after inappropriate investments are made. Investors make precipitous investment changes, which can lose alpha.
3 Anchoring Relating to the familiar experiences, even when inappropriate. Anchoring is a very powerful communication method but can mislead investors unless it is used with caution. For example, investors can be misled about the stability of an investment if analogies are used to represent stability. Analogies of growth can also lead to unrealistic beliefs and expectations. Alpha can be lost by selecting investments that cannot reasonably be expected to produce the expected alpha.
4 Mental Accounting Taking undue risk in one area and avoiding rational risk in others. Used wisely, mental accounting can permit an investor to achieve high alphas in one area, while protecting assets for other purposes. Imprudent use of mental accounting can be as damaging to alpha as any other psychological factor since investors can be misled into inappropriate investments.
5 Diversification Seeking to reduce risk, but simply using different sources. This extremely valuable investment strategy can also be misused to create a false sense of protection that results in alpha-killing actions.
6 Herding Copying the behavior of others even in the face of unfavorable outcomes. Investors who go along with the crowd simply because there is a crowd tend to avoid catastrophic errors, but seldom achieve above-average results. Alpha is not achieved by herding.
7 Regret Treating errors of commission more seriously than errors of omission. Investors who fear decision-making lose alpha through inaction or reversals. Inaction can prevent losses caused by poor decisions, but is unlikely to produce alpha for the investor.
8 Media Response Tendency to react to news without reasonable examination. Familiar media sources have become less reliable as they compete with newer, faster and lower-cost outlets. At the same time, new media outlets seldom have very thorough authentication. This question of reliability raises the concern about reacting to news.
9 Optimism Belief that good things happen to me and bad things happen to others. Optimistic investors hold on to investments after it becomes evident that losses are not likely to be recovered. Holding on to poor investments is yet another way psychological factors can reduce alpha.

Further research showed that loss aversion, herding and media response were not the only forces that caused the loss of profits. In all, we found that there were nine psychological behaviors that were to blame for the underperformance in one way or another. Table 2 defines the nine psychological behaviors that affect investor returns.

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Use, Instead of Fighting, Psychological Behaviors

With the problem clearly identified, the solution seemed simple, at first. If investors were taught to make rational decisions, they could avoid the psychological traps. After years of investor education, there was some improvement, as can be seen in Figure 1, but the basic problem remained. The market meltdown of 2008 was solid evidence that investors still reacted to their psychological instincts.

Further research was clearly necessary. This research led to another way of making better investment decisions. Instead of trying to change psychological behaviors, this new approach takes advantage of them. Specifically loss aversion, narrow framing and mental accounting are deployed. The psychological strategy is to protect the portions of investments that are most critical to the investor, while permitting risks with portions where time will permit losses to be recovered.

The term for this strategy is purpose-based asset management (PBAM), in which investors subdivide investments and associate each subdivision with a specific purpose (Figure 2). In this way, each subdivision can be assigned a different risk tolerance and invested accordingly. For example, one subdivision might be “minimum acceptable retirement income,” which would be very conservatively invested. The subdivision for the purpose of “inheritance” could be more aggressively invested.

The result of this purpose-based system is that the loss aversion is avoided for the minimum retirement income, while the short-term ups and downs of the inheritance portfolio are tolerated without the temptation to sell at the worst-possible times.

Implementing PBAM is actually quite simple, but it does require some discipline to start. Here are the steps:

1. Identify Purposes

Define each major purpose of funds and for each determine:

  • Approximate time frame when funds will be needed;
  • Minimum needs:
    • Lump sum that will be needed,
    • Monthly payments that will be needed and
    • Duration of monthly payments that will be needed; and
  • Optimum needs: How much more than the minimum would be needed for desired results:
    • Lump sum that will be needed, and
    • Monthly payments that will be needed.

2. Prioritize

Arrange purposes in order of importance, taking each minimum and maximum separately—for example, minimum retirement income may be more important than minimum education, but optimum retirement income may not be.

3. Fund

Identify the available sources of funds:

  • Capital such as cash, investments, real estate;
  • Loans, including lines of credit, mortgages, other debt facilities; and
  • Earnings that can be used to accumulate capital or fund monthly payments.

Using the prioritized list, assign funds to each purpose in order of priority from available sources. Stop when funds are exhausted. Only those purposes that are funded can be considered.

If necessary, repeat Step 2.

4. Invest

Develop an investment plan that includes:

  • Setting a risk level for each funded purpose;
  • Grouping purposes with similar risk levels;
  • Selecting investment vehicles; and
  • Laying out a transaction plan as needed:
    • Redeploy existing capital and debt,
    • Make investments, and
    • Initiate accumulation plan.

Investors using PBAM have selected a variety of purposes to allocate investments, including:

  • retirement income,
  • education,
  • health,
  • debt payment,
  • real estate,
  • home improvements,
  • automobiles,
  • vacation/travel,
  • purchase a business interest,
  • transfer to heirs,
  • charity,
  • speculation and
  • other major purchases.

Adopting PBAM assures that investments are properly deployed and the panic of market volatility can be weathered with the confidence of knowing that you are not losing alpha and that the essential funds are protected.

It is hoped that over the next decade, investors will use prudent investment strategies, such as purpose-based asset management, to avoid the tragic loss of reacting emotionally without the safety net of a program that incorporates investor psychology.

Louis Harvey is the president of DALBAR Inc., the financial community’s leading independent expert for evaluating, auditing and rating business practices, customer performance, product quality and service.


Owen Newcomer from CA posted over 2 years ago:

While Harvey's approach will work, it seems overly complex. How is Harvey's approach better or easier than using the tradition fixed asset allocation targets, and rebalancing as appropriate. Using the traditional asset allocation approach, I will buy low and sell high so as to rebalance. All I need is to decide how far off of the chosen target allocations warrant rebalancing. Of course, the hard part is actually doing the rebalancing. But is this any more difficult psychologically than Harvey's approach? I'll vote for the traditional approach.

Bob Stein from OH posted over 2 years ago:

I am on the board of a major state pension fund. We have found this underperformance to be true for people who run their own investments in our DC plans. The DB pension plan also does much better because of the pooled longevity risk. A pension plan never gets old so it can keep a "young" asset allocation forever.

Edward Spitzer from PA posted over 2 years ago:

sensible, but complex, especially for an average investor. Allocation and re-balancing seem equally effective.

William Orlowski from WI posted over 2 years ago:

Your article is very valuable for the average or novice investor. Loss aversion is common for these investors, since most of them lost money in the years 2000-2002 as well as late 2007 to March,2009. However, simply buying Index funds in 2000 and holding them through 2010 did not work either(i.e.,the Lost Decade). Unfortunately, most mutual fund managers have not proven to outperform the ETF indexes such as the SPX,RUT, QQQ, DIA, etc. over this same period.

Kim Bedell from NC posted over 2 years ago:

Great article. We are in it for the long haul, and put as much extra money in as we can during down times. It wasn't always like that though. Years ago, we stopped putting in during a down time. After the fact, I went back and figured out how much further we would have been ahead, had we continued our monthly was amazing and shocking to see the results.

Richard Ballew from CA posted over 2 years ago:

Your findings in the area of behavioral finance are quite clear, and I think few professionals would challenge it, however I want to raise one issue of PBAM I have witnessed over the years. In the context of a rational discussion the approach makes good sense and may indeed generate a high rate of acceptance by investors. However, if the circumstance of the investor in the context of PBAM results in an aggregate asset allocation quite different from the investor's risk profile (most likely toward the conservative side) or in contrast with market conditions, it can cause investor frustration (regret) that sabotages the process. I am curious what you have found in your own experience.

Maureen Gill from NJ posted over 2 years ago:

" fund investors were selling investments long after the large institutions had taken their profits"

Simply put, the retail investors got clipped -- yet again -- by the professionals.

Thomas Keon from PA posted over 2 years ago:

What happened to the comment that I posted yesterday??

Robert Carr from NY posted about 1 year ago:

When you reinvest dividends as you receive them, the down markets are a gift that allow you to accumulate more shares at low prices. This phenomenon magnifies compound interest assuming the price is down due to market pressure and not that there is something wrong with the business.

Robert Anderson from CA posted about 1 year ago:

Although the concept of allocating funds to different end purposes seems reassuring, the best investment returns are either in growth stocks or small cap value funds. Keeping other funds in low yield "safe" investments should be limited to cash essential to have for required living expenses. Otherwise, wealth accumulation will be undermined. The difference between a correction and a bear market must be evaluated by charting. Selling to avoid ruinous losses makes sense in a bear market. Riding down 50% or more is failure to preserve capital, but selling during every 10% correction is ill advised. Buy and sell "do nothing" seems as foolish as panic selling in every decline.

Stephen from FL posted about 1 year ago:

Robert from California:
If only it worked the way you describe it. If one easily knew when we were in a bear market or a correction then very few would lose money. An investor would have to know if they are in a bear or a correction, but it is only after the fact that one knows that. If you get out when it is down 20%, which is a bear market, then you have to know when to get back in as well. Making 2 right decisions all the time is very tough. Even the greats acknowledge it can not be done. Buffett says he only knows of market peaks or troughs well after they happen.
You suggest using charts. Buffett and Peter Lynch both say of charts:
" a chart only tells you what happened in the past" and " if you turn a chart upside down it looks the same".

Douglas Johnson from TX posted about 1 year ago:

Yeah, Robert, by the time you know you are in a bear market, it is too late to sell. You've found yourself on a roller coaster. The only thing to do is ride it down and back up. You fail to preserve capital only if you sell.
-- Doug

Charles Comereski from NY posted about 1 year ago:

What about using stop losses to protect on the down side..?

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