In the first four parts of this article, I have discussed a number of well-known behavioral biases that cause investors to make decisions that are, to put it kindly, less than optimal. In this final installment, I summarize how best to avoid these costly traps.
As these blog posts have been published over the past couple of weeks, the issues are much in evidence. Apple (AAPL), long the darling of the market, has lost favor and Groupon (GRPN) seems to be following a relentless downward spiral. Surely many investors in Groupon must be asking themselves how they could possibly have seen the company as a good bet. Apple stock, which was trading at $700 in mid-September, is currently at $544, a decline of 22% in two months. The news that has come out on Apple does not seem sufficient to justify such a broad shift in the market’s consensus as to the long-term value of Apple as a company. And, of course, we have the poster child of behavioral bias: Facebook (FB). How is it possible that the market’s consensus view of the share value of such a widely held company could be almost 50% below its first day closing price of $38? As Warren Buffett is quoted as saying, in the short-term the market is a voting machine and in the long-term the market is a weighing machine. When voting overwhelms weighing, investor psychology is dominating.
In Part 1 of this series, I set the stage for a discussion of behavioral finance and game theory as they pertain to how market participants behave. In Part 2, I expand upon some of ways that individuals and institutions behave in ways that can be explored from this perspective.
Giving People What They Want
One of the most striking features of the capital markets of the recent year or two has been the ‘Las Vegas’ feeling to much of the action in the markets. There has been tremendous excitement around IPOs of companies including Zynga (ZNGA), Groupon (GRPN), and most notably Facebook (FB). The hoopla around the Facebook IPO, in particular, is without precedent. Why do the financial media and corporate management work together to create this frenzy? The answer is simple: people buy it. If investors ignored the carnival atmosphere around these firms, we wouldn’t see this kind of media. If people say that they want to invest in solid well-run profitable firms, but clearly signal that what they are actually buying is shares in IPOs of companies with enormous dreams but untested business models, we know what Wall Street will provide. If investors seem to be seeking investments that behave like lottery tickets, it is perfectly rational for venture capitalists to fund such companies and to rapidly take them public. I view the marketing of Facebook’s IPO as perfectly executed to exploit behavioral biases. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but even the trading delay on the day of the IPO helped to bring the frenzy to own shares to a fever pitch. The Facebook IPO and others like it suggest that Wall Street is very effectively playing a game that many investors do not really understand. Continue reading →
Watching the market this year has been like observing an exercise in game theory and behavioral finance, and the two fields are closely related. Game theory is the study of how a rational person makes decisions in uncertain situations. As the name suggests, game theory was developed with the intent of developing optimal strategies in games in which chance or the decisions of an opponent play a role in your outcome. Game theory focuses on how rational players can make the best decisions to maximize their satisfaction. Behavioral finance adds the nuance that, in real life, people do not necessarily have all available information and, even if they do, they often make decisions that are inconsistent with those made by a perfectly-rational and fully-informed decision maker. Continue reading →