Object Lessons in Mass Psychology and Discipline

Humans are hard-wired for connection, and as such our very nature pre-disposes us to investment failure, because most people want to be part of the “In” crowd. That’s quite a mouthful, and an ominous one at that. Our current U.S. equity market environment provides object lessons in both mass psychology and discipline.

As I write on the morning of March 2nd it’s noteworthy that yesterday saw $8.2 billion go into SPY, the largest ETF on the S&P 500. That’s the biggest single daily inflow since December 2014 and the second largest in six years. Contrast that with recent reports from major institutional investment houses that state they’re either not increasing equity exposure, or they’re planning to actively decrease equity exposure in portfolios.

Since every trade has a buyer and a seller, there was also $8.2 billion worth of trades yesterday wherein “someone” is getting out. The only possible conclusion one can arrive at is that Institutional Investors are selling their positions to Retail Investors. Market tops are often referred to as those times when investments transfer from strong hands (Institutional, “Smart Money” investors) back to weak hands (Retail, Dumb Money” investors), and that’s what this smells like.

So, are you more comfortable investing with the masses – “hard-wired for connection with the crowd” – or are you content being a patient and disciplined contrarian whose investing behavior mimics or follows the smart, patient and behaviours of Institutional Investors? This is the object lesson in mass psychology: are you part of the “smart” money or the “dumb” money?

The stronger the mass opinion that “everything is positive and rosy,” the more likely we’re close to an interim top…one can almost smell the desperation of the recent buyers whose Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) has over-taken their Fear of Loss of Capital (FLOC), or perhaps their bias against Donald Trump. As Michael Campbell and others has recently warned, mixing your political opinions with your investment decisions is a recipe for disaster.

So, was yesterday’s retail buying panic driven by frustrated Democrats who had previously believed that the markets had to crumble because Donald Trump is (in their eyes) “the source of all evils soon to be perpetrated on America”…and whose February 28th address to a Joint Session of Congress was widely hailed (by 75% or more of viewers) as positive, strong, clear and, yes, even somewhat Presidential? Was yesterday the hard evidence of shy retail investors throwing in the towel, and proclaiming “Just get me into this market before it gets away?”

While I don’t believe this is a major market top that starts a major meltdown, history shows that buying frenzies like we saw on Wednesday March 1st usually immediately precede pull-backs. Only time will tell if history is once again our best guide…but that’s where our Clients’ (and my family’s) money is positioned. It’s boring, and relentlessly effective. If we get a dip in markets, remaining cash will get deployed, so we’d be completely okay with a sharp little pullback. It would be the pause that refreshes “The Bull”, whose lot in life is to always slowly climb the wall of worry created by the masses.

This begs a second important question for readers: do you have a clearly articulated Investment Policy Statement (IPS) that defines the framework for your portfolio? Is your minimum and maximum exposure to cash, fixed income, stocks, precious metals and alternatives clearly laid out as a guide for investment decisions? If you don’t have an IPS, why don’t you? If you do have an IPS, is it being followed by your investment professional or you – if you’re self-managing? This is the object lesson in Discipline…are you following a smart framework?

Patience and Discipline are accretive to your wealth, health and happiness – so focus on these.

Cheers,

Andrew Ruhland, CFP, CIM

Founder, www.integratedwealthmanagement.ca