October 20, 2015

Normal Investors - Familiarity

Credit: Suat Eman at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Imagine you are just getting home after a very busy and stressful day at work. You just closed the door to the garage, dropped your bag on the couch, and are making your way up the stairs towards something you value deeply - comfortable clothes. Yep, there’s that old pair of jeans you wore yesterday. You know the ones with the slightly worn knee and the stretched out belt loop from where you like to rest your thumb? Best of all, they’re everso slightly stretched out from your wearing them yesterday. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone!

Of course there’s a similar feeling when you return home after travelling, whether for business or for pleasure. That moment after you’ve filled the laundry bin, returned your toothbrush to its normal spot, and have finally put up the suitcase. Oh it’s nice to see your shower, your couch, and most of all, your pillow! Wouldn’t you agree?

As you’ve undoubtedly gathered, I’m talking about familiarity. Whether a pair of comfortably worn jeans or your old friend of a pillow, familiarity feels good. It’s what you know. It’s what feels right. It’s what feels safe. Familiarity is also the third tendency that I present to you as a trait many normal investors have.

I would offer that many people go with what they know, especially when they are unsure of what is best. Consider some research done by Vanguard back in 2010 that found that Canadian investors were 65% invested in Canadian stocks, U.S. investors were 72% invested in U.S. stocks, and Australian investors were 74% invested in Australian stocks. Canadians, Americans, and Australians certainly have their differences, but do you really think the before mentioned investment allocations coincidentally showed that degree of “home bias?” I don’t. Investors were investing in what they felt they knew.

To take this a step further, let’s spend a moment on company stock. Regardless of the company, most people I come in contact with who work for publicly traded companies tend to own stock in their employers. Why? Do they think their company’s stock is going to really pop? Sometimes. And sometimes, they’re right, but sometimes they’re not. I’ve met many successful employees and successful investors who have a significant portion of their wealth in “their” company stock, and they desire to continue holding that stock even when they are no longer actively working for the company. Why? I think it’s because it’s easier for someone to feel safe investing in a company that they know a little about rather than the broader market which they may not know as well. Employers are aware of this, too, and that’s one reason employees are often incentivized with company stock in an attempt to align the employee’s financial success with the company’s future financial success and encourage hard and good work from employees.

(As an aside, I attended a lecture given by a professor from the Wharton Business School earlier this year, and he shared that a study was currently being done on what stocks were the hardest to get investors to diversify out of based on their location. #2 was supposedly getting a Seattle resident to sell some Microsoft stock (Microsoft is based in Seattle). Guess what #1 was? Getting stock in The Coca-Cola Company out of an Atlanta resident’s hands! Do any of my local readers here have any Coca-Cola stock? If you don’t, I bet you have friends and family who do!)

Familiarity feels good. Investing in companies that are based in your country is normal. Investing in the company you work for is normal. Investing in companies that are near and dear to your city or state is normal. However, you have to be careful when considering the investment risks of being overly concentrated in a single stock, a single sector, a single asset class, or a single country’s stocks. The risk-adjusted returns of a diversified portfolio are often still king. Going with what you know, what feels right, and what feels safe can be a crutch and a safety blanket, but what if your crutch was named Enron? What if you’re a Greek citizen and Greek companies are what you know? What if your paycheck was coming from Lehman Brothers, the pension benefit you were working for was guaranteed by Lehman Brothers, and most of the stock you owned was invested in Lehman Brothers stock? It’s normal to invest based on familiarity, but that may not always be best.

There’s nothing I hate more than when a grocery store I frequently visit decides to remodel. It’s frustrating. It doesn’t feel like it used to, I don’t understand the layout, and I don’t know where anything is, but I will get used to it. Eventually the new layout will feel familiar. Sort of like an investment portfolio that has recently been adequately and prudently diversified, eventually the new layout will feel familiar.


Next up: overconfidence

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