Cognitive Biases during Investing

Things have really been getting a lot busy with work and life lately. It is summer time here in the US, and from what I can tell, the general public is out and about, trying to spend a lot of time outdoors. I can see the pandemic restrictions being lifted as well and it seems like things are slowly returning back to some semblance of normalcy. The markets are rallying along as well, and even all this talk of inflation has not really slowed it down. Does this mean that Mr. Market is treating this rise of inflation as a transitory event? Time will tell.

Even with all this news, I am continuing to stick to my strategy. While I tend to my responsibilities of my day job and my family’s needs, my capital deployed in high-quality businesses earns passive income for me in the form of dividends.

In my spare time, I have been binge-reading articles/watching videos on valuation, with an overall goal of adding more tools to my repertoire to analyze businesses effectively. One such person who has been widely quoted on the subject of valuation is Prof. Aswath Damodaran from the NYU Stern School of Business. If you have not checked his website, I humbly urge you to do so, as I think it is a treasure-chest of useful information/tools on the subject of valuation.

One of the topics that I happened to read about is how biases can impact valuations and this subject perked my interest. Here is what Prof. Aswath writes on this subject:

When you start on the valuation of a company, you almost never start with a blank slate. Instead, your valuation is shaped by your prior views of the company in question. The more you know about a company, the more likely it is that you will be biased, when valuing the company…In principle, you should do your valuation first before you decide how much to pay for an asset. In practice, people often decide what to pay and do the valuation afterwards.

Cognitive biases, in general, impact our ability to think and reason logically. Investing is no different. It is important to understand them and ensure that you are avoid them when evaluating businesses. Here are some well known biases that can impact your investment decisions.

Anchoring Bias

We humans tend to rely a lot on the very first piece of information that we receive and use that as an anchor or an initial reference point. As we receive new information, it is processed with reference to this anchor.

Anchoring is used very effectively by folks in the sales and marketing domain. One example that readily comes to mind: if you are ever at a car dealership shopping for a new car, notice how the car dealer will first show you the expensive models before showing you a “cheaper” model, thereby prompting you to buy the latter.

Here is another classic example, this time it is Steve Jobs using anchoring during an iPad promo event.

Anchoring, by itself, may not be such a bad thing in investing, if you are anchoring your brain to the intrinsic value of the investment. However, if your brain fixates on the wrong data point, such as say stock price alone, it can have a damaging effect on your decision making.

Confirmation Bias

Simply put, confirmation bias is a tendency to only search for, favor or interpret proofs that align with our existing point of view. In fact, taken to its extreme, this can result in misinterpreting contradictory evidences to support the current view.

This can be particularly harmful when objectively analyzing a business. If you are approaching the analysis with a “loaded mind” where you already think that “This is a great business“, you will tend to interpret data put in front of you through this prism and simply dismiss other non-conforming data as outliers.

Outcome Bias

This is a tendency to base the effectiveness of a decision through its eventual outcome, and neglecting all the other factors that may have contributed to the outcome. I view this bias through two hypothetical examples:

I bought a stock, and the stock price went higher the next day. Therefore, my decision to buy was correct.

OR

I sold a stock, and the stock price dropped the next day. Therefore, I am right about selling this stock.

Conventional wisdom states that the stock price is probably the worst place to look at when it comes to validation for your decision to buy/sell a stock.

Bandwagon Effect or Herd Mentality

This is a tendency of adopting a specific style or belief simply because others are doing it. In investing, this might be summarized as:

Everyone is buying this stock, therefore it must be a good business.

There is also the common case of FOMO aka Fear Of Missing Out, because you are always wondering about what the other investors know about this business that you don’t.

There are several examples from history to show how this generally does not end well for the investor. One such funny example is quoted by Benjamin Graham, the Godfather of Value Investing, in his famous book titled The Intelligent Investor:

And back in the spring of 1720, Sir Isaac Newton owned shares in the South Sea Company, the hottest stock in England. Sensing that the market was getting out of hand, the great physicist muttered that he “could calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of the people.” Newton dumped his South Sea shares, pocketing a 100% profit totaling £7,000. But just months later, swept up in the wild enthusiasm of the market, Newton jumped back in at a much higher price—and lost £20,000 (or more than $3 million in today’s money). For the rest of his life, he forbade anyone to speak the words “South Sea” in his presence.

Availability Heuristic Bias

This is a tendency to place undue importance on events and examples that come readily to mind. This is easily seen in a lot of commentary and analysis on investing. Investors tend to remember the dot-com boom or the Great Financial Crisis in vivid detail and sometimes use that a basis for future investments.

So what does all this mean?

Through this discussion, we can derive the following conclusions:

  1. Your greatest enemy and your greatest friend in all your decisions, investing or otherwise, is your very own sub-conscious.
  2. If you already own a particular stock and think the underlying business fundamentals are sound, one technique that I have found useful while analyzing such a holding is playing the Devil’s advocate i.e. now look for reasons why you would want to sell this stock and be as objective as you possibly can.
  3. Valuation is not an exact science, quite far from it actually. In fact, as a result of these biases and assumptions, there is a good chance that your estimations are completely wrong. It is for this reason that diversification in your portfolio helps to safe-guard against such bets going wrong.
  4. When in doubt, use the philosophy based on Occam’s Razor i.e. the simplest explanation/model is usually the best way to attack an estimation problem. The more complicated your model gets (including more inputs and assumptions), the greater the risk of your biases sneaking in.
  5. Always invest with a Margin of Safety, because at the end of the day, all valuations are estimates and they could be wrong.

That’s it, folks! I hope you found this article useful to read. Please drop a comment below to share your thoughts on this subject.

Until next time…

6 thoughts on “Cognitive Biases during Investing

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