November 30th, 2009
06:10 AM GMT
My wife invested a tidy sum more than a decade ago in five Chinese companies – and then forgot about it. When going through some paperwork, she rediscovered her investments and learned they had grown five-fold in value by November, 2007.
Our awareness of the investment, however, weighed on us during the calamitous events of 2008 as we watched, month-after-month, the value of the stock slide until we couldn’t take it anymore – in January this year, with the value just 20 percent up from her original investment, we cashed out.
From my previous reporting on behavioral finance, I knew that in the long run the smarter move would be to keep the cash in the market. But an surprise pregnancy and the unplanned expenses (to counter the unplanned joy) made it a straightforward decision for us. At least, we were getting out while we were ahead.
And then I’ve watched the Chinese stock market roar back to life, with year-to-date gains on the Shanghai index alone reaching 90 percent in August.
What can I say – we’re human. And as humans we have a nagging propensity to sell low and buy high.
According to behavioral economist, our natural “fight or flight” impulses that kept us alive in the jungle often make our investment portfolios dead meat.
A buy and sell of a stock on a single day is a virtual coin toss: investors have a 50.2 percent chance of making money, investment counselor Philippa Huckle once told me. The longer investors hold, however, the chances of profit expand exponentially: there is a 70 percent likelihood of earning a profit holding for 18 months. Hold for five years, odds increase to a 95 percent probability of positive return, she said.
Yet despite this knowledge, our patience for investment is slipping: from 1984 to 2000 the average stock buy was held for two years and seven months; by 2004, the average slid to two years and two months.
According to Dalbar Inc., a financial research company, a $10,000 mutual fund investment in 1985 left to sit without withdrawal would be worth $95,000 in 20 years, despite losses suffered during the 1987 market crash, the 1997-98 Asian currency crisis and the technology implosion of 2000.
One interesting fact from behavioral finance research helps explain why we dropped that forgotten Chinese stock once we became aware of it – loss aversion. Research shows that investors “feel” the loss twice as much as a similar gain: In other words, the experience to lose $1 ,000 twice as intense as the pleasure of a $1000 gain.
Watching the stock drop month-after-month became too much to take, and we – like a lot of other investors – wanted that pain to go away. And it cost us.
Now I’m trying to forget that, too.
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