How We Make Financial Decisions

Financial decision making is simply more tricky than it seems. When we make our decisions, they always seem rational at the time. In addition, economists mistakenly have looked for ways to justify our decisions as being rational. Obviously, this cannot be the case.

We often buy things on emotion. Economists would rationalize this by saying that the item we bought gave us the most utility at the time. In reality, the thing we bought could have been a snickers bar or a soda. Something with no real value, in other words. But it gave us a feeling of satisfaction. Does this qualify as a rational decision? I think not.

Many irrational decisions people make involve those that provide the most pleasure or the least pain. This casuses even the most disciplined of people to slip every once in a while. For instance, a motivated health guru doesn’t eat healthy 100% of the time.

Another decision making problem we have lies with our illusion of being able to predict the future. We are hardwired to look for patterns. Then, we take those patterns and expect trends to continue indefinitely. Obviously, very few trends continue indefinitely. Most of these trends are nearly random and regress to the mean over time.

Bull markets start once everyone has given up on a particular asset class. This makes it undervalued. Anything that’s undervalued will begin attracting savvy investors. A new trend is born. When a new asset establishes a track record of rising prices, it attracts more investors. The trend strengthens and becomes psychologically reinforcing. Usually, the asset is at or above its intrinsic value at this point.

When prices get unreasonably past their fair values, a bubble is born. A crash becomes inevitable. But its difficult to stop and cash in. This is because it’s impossible to know when prices peak. A rational investor could stand to miss a big portion of the upside because a bubble could persist for longer than one would reasonably assume.

Governments also play a big role in bubbles. In fact, they will do anything to keep the party going. Keeping interest rates low is the perfect example. Lax lending standards and rising debt levels are a red flag that a bubble exists. Examples of this include buying stocks on margin and leveraging real estate.

The nature of bubbles reflects that most investors buy near the top. If an upward trend doesn’t exist for an asset, no one talks about it. Out of sight, out of mind. Gold simply wasn’t discussed in the 1990’s. The law of large numbers would show that the asset pool was too small at the beginning of the bull market in order for the majority to have owned it. If the masses were holding any particular thing, the prices would have been higher. And no new trend could get any traction.

We make our decisions based on what others are doing. In order to achieve long term success, try looking for the assets no one else is buying or discussing.

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