Posts tagged ‘Seth Godin’

Out of the Woods?

Forest Free Image

In the middle of the 24/7 news cycle, many investors get distracted by the headline du jour, much like a baby gets distracted by a shiny new object. While investor moods have been swinging violently back and forth, October’s performance has bounced back like a flying tennis ball. So far, the reversal in the S&P 500 performance has more than erased the -9% correction occurring in August and September. Could we finally be out of the woods, or will geopolitics and economic factors scare investors through Halloween and year-end?

Given recent catapulting stock prices, investor amnesia has erased the shear horror experienced over the last few months – this is nothing new for emotional stock market participants. As I wrote in Controlling the Lizard Brain, human brains have evolved the almond-shaped tissue in our brains (amygdala) that controlled our ancestors’ urge to flee ferocious lions. Today the urge is to flee scary geopolitical and economic headlines.

I expanded on the idea here:

“When the brain in functioning properly, the prefrontal cortex (the front part of the brain in charge of reasoning) is actively communicating with the amygdala. Sadly, for many people, and investors, the emotional response from the amygdala dominates the rational reasoning portion of the prefrontal cortex. The best investors and traders have developed the ability of separating emotions from rational decision making, by keeping the amygdala in check.”

 

Evidence of lizard brains fear for flight happened just two months ago when the so-called “Fear Gauge” (VIX – Volatility Index) hit a stratospherically frightening level of 53 (see chart below), reached only once over the last few decades (2008-09 Financial Crisis).

Vix 10-23-15

Just as quickly as slowing China growth and a potential Fed interest rate hike caused investors to crawl underneath their desks during August (down –11% in four days), while biting their fingernails, investors have now sprung outside to the warm sunshine. The end result has been an impressive, mirror-like +11% increase in stock prices (S&P 500) over the last 18 trading days.

Has anything really changed over the last few weeks? Probably not. Economists, strategists, analysts, and other faux-soothsayers get paid millions of dollars in a fruitless attempt to explain day-to-day (or hour-by-hour) volatility in the stock markets. One Nobel Prize winner, Paul Samuelson, understood the random nature of stock prices when he observed, “The stock market has forecast nine of the last five recessions.” The pundits are no better at consistently forecasting stock prices.

As I have reiterated many times before, the vast majority of the pundits do not manage money professionally – the only people you should be paying attention to are successful long-term investors. Even listening to veteran professional investors can be dangerous because there is often such a wide dispersion of opinions based on varying time horizons, strategies, and risk tolerances.

Skepticism remains rampant regarding the sustainability of the bull market as demonstrated by the -$100 billion+ pulled out of domestic equity funds during 2015 (Source: ICI). The Volatility Index (VIX) shows us the low-hanging fruit of pessimism has been picked with the metric down -73% from August. With legislative debt ceiling and sequestration debates ahead in the coming weeks, we could hit some more choppy waters. Short-term volatility may resurrect itself, but the economy keeps chugging along, interest rates remain near all-time lows, and stock valuations, broadly speaking, remain reasonable. Investors may not be out of the woods yet, but one thing remains certain…an ever-changing stream of fearful headlines are likely to continue flooding in, which means we must all keep our lizard brains in check.

investment-questions-border

www.Sidoxia.com 

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

 

October 24, 2015 at 3:15 pm Leave a comment

Controlling the Investment Lizard Brain

Brain

“Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyses us.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Investing is challenging enough without bringing emotions into the equation. Unfortunately, humans are emotional, and as a result investors often place too much reliance on their feelings, rather than using objective information to drive rational decision making.

What causes investors to make irrational decisions? The short answer: our “amygdala.” Author and marketer Seth Godin calls this almond-shaped tissue in the middle of our head, at the end of the brain stem, the “lizard brain” (video below). Evolution created the amygdala’s instinctual survival flight response for lizards to avoid hungry hawks and humans to flee ferocious lions.

 

Over time, the threat of  lions eating people in our modern lives has dramatically declined, but the human’s “lizard brain” is still running in full gear, worrying about  other fear-inducing warnings like Iran, Syria, Obamacare, government shutdowns, taxes, Cyprus, sequestration, etc. (see Series of Unfortunate Events)

When the brain in functioning properly, the prefrontal cortex (the front part of the brain in charge of reasoning) is actively communicating with the amygdala. Sadly, for many people, and investors, the emotional response from the amygdala dominates the rational reasoning portion of the prefrontal cortex. The best investors and traders have developed the ability of separating emotions from rational decision making, by keeping the amygdala in check.

With this genetically programmed tendency of constantly fearing the next lion or stock market crash, how does one control their lizard brain from making sub-optimal, rash investment decisions? Well, the first thing you should do is turn off the TV. And by turning off the TV, I mean stop listening to talking head commentators, economists, strategists, analysts, neighbors, co-workers, blogger hacks, newsletter writers, journalists, and other investing “wannabes”. Sure, you could throw my name into the list of people to ignore if you wanted to, but the difference is, at least I have actually invested real money for over 20 years (see How I Managed $20,000,000,000.00), whereas the vast majority of those I listed have not. But don’t take my word for it…listen or read the words of other experienced investors Warren Buffett, Peter Lynch, Ron Baron,  John Bogle, Phil Fisher, and other investment titans (see also Sidoxia Hall of Fame). These investment legends have successful long-term investment track records and they lived through wars, recessions, financial crises, and other calamities…and still managed to generate incredible returns.

Another famed investor, William O’Neil, summed this idea nicely by adding the following:

“Since the market tends to go in the opposite direction of what the majority of people think, I would say 95% of all these people you hear on TV shows are giving you their personal opinion. And personal opinions are almost always worthless … facts and markets are far more reliable.”

 

The Harmful Consequence of Brain on Pain

Besides forcing damaging decisions, another consequence of our lizard brain is its ability to distort reality. Behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Prize winner) and Amos Tversky through their research demonstrated the pain of $50 loss is more than twice as painful as the pleasure from $50 gain (see Pleasure/Pain Principle). Common sense would dictate our brains would treat equivalent scenarios in a proportional manner, but as the chart below shows, that is not the case:

Source: Investopedia

Source: Investopedia

Kahneman adds to the decision-making relationship of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex by describing the concepts of instinctual and deliberative choices in his most recent book, Thinking Fast and Slow  (see Decision Making on Freeways).

Optimizing Risk

Taking excessive risks in technology stocks in the 1990s or in housing in the mid-2000s was very damaging to many investors, but as we have seen, our lizard brains can cause investors to become overly risk averse. Over the last five years, many people have personally experienced the ill effects of unwarranted conservatism. Investment great Sir John Templeton summed up this risk by stating, “The only way to avoid mistakes is not to invest – which is the biggest mistake of all.”

Every person has a different perception and appetite for risk. The optimal amount of risk taken by any one investor should be driven by their unique liquidity needs and time horizon…not a perceived risk appetite. Typically risk appetites go up as markets peak, and conservatism reaches a fearful apex near market bottoms – the opposite tendency of rational decision making. Besides liquidity and time horizon, a focus on valuation coupled with diversification across asset class (stocks/bonds), geography (domestic/international), size (small/large), style (value/growth) is critical in controlling risk. If you can’t determine your personal, optimal risk profile, then find an experienced and knowledgeable investment advisor to assist you.

With the advent of the internet and mobile communication, our brains and amygdala continually get bombarded with fearful stimuli, leading to disastrous decision-making and damaging portfolio outcomes. Turning off the TV and selectively choosing the proper investment advice is paramount in keeping your amygdala in check. Your lizard brain may protect you from getting eaten by a lion, but falling prey to this structural brain flaw may eat your investment portfolio alive.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

January 11, 2014 at 4:39 pm 8 comments

Short Arms, Deep Pockets

Companies have deep pockets flush with cash, but are plagued with short arms, unwilling to reach into their wallets to make substantive new hires. I have talked about “unemployment hypochondria” in the past but is this cautious behavior rational?

The short answer is yes, and it is very typical in light of the similar “jobless recoveries” we experienced in 1991 and 2001. After suffering the worst financial crisis in a generation, employers’ wounds are still not completely healed and the frightening memories of 2008-2009 are still fresh in their minds.

Linchpin Labor

The globalization cat is out of the bag, and technology is only accelerating the commoditization of labor. When labor can be purchased for $1 per hour in China or $.50 per hour in India , and in many instances no strategic benefit lost, then why are so many people surprised about the hemorrhaging of $25 per hour manufacturing jobs to cheaper locales? Agriculture and related industries used to account for more than 90% of our economy about 150 years ago – today agriculture makes up about 2% of our economic output. Even though this dominating sector withered away on a relative basis, the United States became the global powerhouse innovator of the 20th century.  

Innovative companies understand that true value is created by those workers who make themselves indispensable – or what Seth Godin calls “Linchpins.” Apple Inc. (AAPL) understands these trends. If you don’t believe me, just flip over an iPhone and read where it clearly states, “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” (see BELOW).

We are falling further behind our global brethren in math and science, and our immigration policy is all backwards (Keys to Success). Education, creativity, ingenuity, and entrepreneurial spirit are the main ingredients necessary to climb the labor food chain. For those workers that make themselves linchpins, their services will be in demand during good times and bad times.

Jobs = Heavy Hiking Boots

Like scared hikers jettisoning heavy hiking boots to escape a pursuing grizzly bear, business owners will eventually need to purchase a new pair of boots, if they want to hike the mountain to face the next challenge. Right now, businesses are content waiting it out, more worried about the potential of a bear jumping out to devour them.

Although businesses may not be plunging into hiring a substantial number of new workers, positive leading indicators are becoming more apparent. Beyond the obvious improvement in the explicit job numbers (e.g., nine consecutive months of private job creation), other factors such as increased temporary workers, accelerating job listings, and increased capital expenditures are the precursors to sustained job hiring.

Quarterly Capital Carrots

Capital expenditures generally lead to more immediate productivity improvements and do not have a complete negative and immediate impact on the sacred EPS (earnings per share) and income statement metrics. On the other hand, hiring a new employee has an instant depressing effect on expenses, thereby dragging down the beloved EPS figure. What’s more, new employees do not typically become productive or sales generative for months. If you consider the heavy explicit wages coupled with implicit training costs, until the coast is clear and confidence overcomes fear, businesses are not going to dip their hands into their cash-filled pockets to hire workers willy-nilly.

As previously mentioned, improved business confidence is being signaled by increased capital spending. Just over the last week, investors have witnessed significantly expanded capital expenditures across a broad array of industries. Here are a few random samplings:

September 2010 – Quarterly Capital Expenditures

                                                          Q3 – 2010                            Q3 – 2009            YOY%

Apple Inc. (AAPL)                             $760 mil                vs.          $459 mil                +66%

Halliburton Company (HAL)           $557 mil                vs.          $440 mil               +27%

Coca Cola Company (KO)               $442 mil                vs.          $419 mil                  +5%

Dominos Pizza Inc. (DPZ)                 $5.2 mil                 vs.         $4.1 mil                 +26%

Intel Corp. (INTC)                             $1.4 bill                vs            $944 mil               +44%

Although the pace of the recovery is losing steam, companies’ health persists to strengthen, as evidenced in part by the +45% growth in 2010 S&P 500 profits, swelling record cash piles, and increasing corporate confidence (rising capital expenditures). Despite these positive leading indicators, business owners are reluctant to dip their short arms into their deep cash-filled pockets to hire new employees. Given our experience over the last few decades this corporate behavior is perfectly consistent with recent jobless recoveries. Until its clear the economic bear is hibernating, businesses will continue building their cash warchests. Everyone will be happier once we are done running from bears, and instead chasing bulls.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and AAPL, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in HAL, KO, DPZ, INTC, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

October 20, 2010 at 12:36 am Leave a comment

Sachs Prescribes Telescope Over Microscope

Jeffrey Sachs, Professor at Columbia University and one of Time magazine’s “100 most influential people” recommends that our country takes a longer-term view in handling our problems (read Sachs’s full bio). Instead of analyzing everything through a microscope, Sachs realizes that peering out over the horizon with a telescope may provide a clearer path to success versus getting sidetracked in the emotional daily battles of noise.

I do my fair share of media and politician bashing, but every once in a while it’s magnificent to discover and enjoy a breath of fresh common sense, like the advice coming from Sachs. Normally, I become suffocated with a wet blanket of incessant, hyper-sensitive blabbering that comes from Washington politicians and airwave commentators. With the advent of this thing we call the “internet,” the pace and volume of daily information (see TMI “Too Much Information” article) crossing our eyeballs has only snowballed faster. Rather than critically evaluate the fear-laced news, the average citizen reverts back to our Darwinian survival instincts, or to what Seth Godin calls the “Lizard Brain. ”

Sachs understands the lingering nature to our country’s problems, so in pulling out his long-term telescope, he created a  broad roadmap to recovery – many of the points to which I agree. Here is an abbreviated list of his quotes:

On Short-Termism:

“Despite the evident need for a rise in national saving after 2008, President Barack Obama tried to prolong the consumption binge by aggressively promoting home and car sales to already exhausted consumers, and by cutting taxes despite an unsustainable budget deficit. The approach has been hyper short-term, driven by America’s two-year election cycle. It has stalled because US consumers are taking a longer-term view than the politicians.”

On Differences between China and the U.S.:

“China saves and invests; the US talks, consumes, borrows, and talks some more.”

On Why Tax Cuts and Stimulus Alone Won’t Work:

 “Short-term tax cuts or transfers on top of America’s $1,500bn budget deficit are unlikely to do much to boost demand, while they would greatly increase anxieties over future fiscal retrenchment. Households are hunkering down, and many will regard an added transfer payment as a temporary windfall that is best used to pay down debt, not boost spending.”

On Malaise Hampering Businesses:

“Businesses, for their part, are distressed by the lack of direction….Uncertainty is a real killer.”

 

On 5-Point Plan to a U.S. Recovery:

1)      Increased Clean Energy Investments: The recovery needs “a significant boost in investments in clean energy and an upgraded national power grid.”

2)      Infrastructure Upgrade: “A decade-long program of infrastructure renovation, with projects such as high-speed inter-city rail, water and waste treatment facilities and highway upgrading, co-financed by the federal government, local governments and private capital.”

3)      Further Education: “More education spending at secondary, vocation and bachelor-degree levels, to recognize the reality that tens of millions of American workers lack the advanced skills needed to achieve full employment at the salaries that the workers expect.”

4)      Infrastructure Exports to the Poor: “Boost infrastructure exports to Africa and other low-income countries. China is running circles around the US and Europe in promoting such exports of infrastructure. The costs are modest – essentially just credit guarantees – but the benefits are huge, in increased exports, support for African development and a boost in geopolitical goodwill and stability.”

5)      Deficit Reduction Plan: “A medium-term fiscal framework that will credibly reduce the federal budget deficit to sustainable levels within five years. This can be achieved partly by cutting defense spending by two percentage points of gross domestic product.”

Rather than succumb to the nanosecond, fear-induced headlines that rattle off like rapid fire bullets, Sachs supplies thoughtful long-term oriented solutions and ideas. The fact that Sachs mentions the word “decade” three times in his Op-ed highlights the lasting nature of these serious problems our country faces. To better see and deal with these challenges more clearly, I suggest you borrow Sachs’s telescope, and leave the microscope in the lab.

Read Full Financial Times Article by Jeffrey Sachs

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

July 30, 2010 at 2:18 am 3 comments


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