Behavioral finance is a relatively new area of research that combines psychology and conventional economics to try to explain why people make irrational financial decisions. It questions the long-held assumptions by financial economists that investors are rational and act in their self-interest, as well as the mathematical equations that purport to show how markets are largely predictable and efficient. A few economists, such as Eugene Fama, one of the founding fathers of efficient market theory, continue to cling to some of these assumptions. But many financial economists are jumping ship.
A wave of research, spurred on by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and Richard Thaler, has demonstrated that investors have systematic biases. Numerous researchers have documented how we make mistakes in our financial decisions. We anchor around certain numbers and concepts, we travel in herds, we overreact, we are overconfident, and we are very, very bad at assessing risk. We trade too frequently. We pay too much for those trades. In short, we are unprofessional.
Much of Wall Street is even less professional. Bankers have their own set of self-control problems, which lead them to place spectacularly bad bets, such as those that nearly brought down the financial system in 2007–2008. Investment advisors take advantage of our mistakes by selling risky and inappropriate investments to us and to the mutual funds, pension funds, and insurance companies we rely on. Many brokers prey on our cognitive mistakes, particularly our overconfidence. Financial advisors are supposed to have our interests in mind when they make recommendations, but we cannot always trust them, especially when their incentives are not aligned with ours, as when they profit from us trading frequently or buying risky securities.
There are still some reliable leaders in the financial business. Although investment banking has been vilified since the financial crisis, some investment banking firms, such as The Needham Group, Inc., have avoided the major losses and scandals that were so common at major Wall Street banks by focusing on the traditional business of advising companies about raising money, mergers, and strategy. Likewise, although most investors have fared poorly in recent years, others have done quite well. There is Warren Buffett, of course. Some investors, such as Wilbur L. Ross Jr. and Ralph Whitworth, have reliably made money by purchasing significant stakes in underperforming companies and turning them around. Several hedge fund managers, such as Bill Ackman and Ray Dalio, have remained successful before, during, and after the recent crisis.
These successful financial professionals are a diverse group, but they share one important characteristic: they are focused on the long term. Their investment horizon extends to years or even decades. They are capable of moving quickly, but understand how to avoid dangerous short-term impulses. They can do what some financial executives call “seeing around corners.” They would never pick stocks during a lightning round. They do not respond to, or even watch, Mad Money.
Warren Buffett says one key to his success as an investor has been delaying decisions. He likens buying stocks to hitting a baseball — except without the strikes: “I call investing the greatest business in the world because you never have to swing. You stand at the plate, the pitcher throws you General Motors at 47! US Steel at 39! And nobody calls a strike on you. There’s no penalty except opportunity lost. All day you wait for the pitch you like; then when the fielders are asleep, you step up and hit it.” As Buffett puts it, “We don’t get paid for activity, just for being right. As to how long we’ll wait, we’ll wait indefinitely.”