Professional golfers within 150 yards of the green focus only on the target (the flag stick) and forget any and all of the 21 so-called “swing thoughts” that come into play to create the perfect shots we see on television. In the same vein, mastering the mental challenge of investing by focusing on a goal is more important than understanding all the qualities and uses of various investment products. Gaining a clear picture of an investment goal is a first step, and what follows is a march to achievement that may, or may not, take place with certainty.
Annie Duke, a former poker player, author of “Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts,” talks about the need to identify a goal and then determine the probability of reaching that goal. What gets in the way of the “best laid plans of mice and men” is the fact that good luck can play a role in our success, which means that bad luck can lead to results falling short of expectations.
The starting point is to determine a clear picture of the goal — enough money to cover expenses throughout a retiree’s life. The next step, ruling out good and bad luck, is an assessment of different financial products with varying levels of expected risk and return.
Next, the investor needs to think about what bad luck they have had as investors weighed against the good experiences that have contributed to their current account balances. Assessing what caused success or failure is difficult. We tend to give ourselves credit for our successes and blame other factors for losses. For those selling out during the crash of 2008, it’s easy to blame the loss on banks and bond traders that triggered the worst crash in 70 years. Gains, when they have happened, could have been just the result of “status quo bias” or the catatonic state that makes it impossible to sell a winning stock or fund. Or, we could be patting ourselves on the back for buying a Bay Area residence 30 years ago.
Whatever. Some good luck can blur our assessment of what we should be considering going forward.
Within ranges, investment results can be judged prospectively based on long-term past history and the extent to which it generally repeats itself — if given enough time. For example, the S&P 500 has generated annual returns of around 10 percent, but history also shows that in two-thirds of those years, the returns will range between 27 percent and minus 7 percent. Once every 20 years, it could lose more than 24 percent in a year or make more than 44 percent. For a 50/50 mix of stocks and bonds, the average gain will be about 7.5 percent, ranging between 17.5 and a minus 2.5 percent two-thirds of the time — clearly a much safer, but less rewarding, bet.
Armed with these probabilities, an investor can plot a course to a retirement goal remembering that money at 10 percent doubles every seven years and money earning 7 percent doubles every 10 years. Multiply out your current holdings using these multiples and add to the number what you expect to contribute between now and retirement. Does it add up to a reasonable goal?
If we would prefer to use the 10 percent expectation with everything dumped into stocks, can we afford to take the risk of a bigger loss? Some people can, but let’s ask ourselves if that confidence stems from a rising market since 2009. In other words, are we confusing brains with a bull market? It’s easy to do. Ms. Duke, in her book, advises having discussions with friends to get opinions that might offset the emotional attachment and optimism we might have clouding our vision.
On the flip side, we may be unreasonably pessimistic if we cashed out in 2009 and, still traumatized, have been waiting patiently for the next crash to get back in. Soliciting other opinions is all about the so-called “wisdom of crowds” — a group of people who will always make a better decision than the smartest single person in the room — even when that single person is one of us.
The professional golfer with several million dollars at stake will be making his or her approach shot to the 18th green after carefully deciding either to go for a dangerous pin close to the water or to the “fat” or safe center of the green. After deciding on the goal comes the calculating of the probability of success (the caddie offers his opinion for a “wisdom of crowds” component.) Then, the pro swings and waits to see how the shot turns out on the bell curve of possible outcomes. It’s a similar process that leads to investment success.