Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Avoiding the Bear Traps

People's emotions lead them to make bad financial moves in chaotic times. Here's what to look out for.

In a chaotic bear market like this one, it's easy for investors to fall into traps.

They might scramble to make trades based on the latest news reports. They might search for a miracle stock that will pay off big and let them recoup all their losses. Or they might go in the other direction -- and get so scared of the market that they don't make any moves at all.

"I believe that the frequency of irrational investor behavior goes up along with market volatility," says Chris Blum, head of the U.S. behavioral-finance group for JP Morgan Funds in New York, which studies how people's emotions affect their financial decisions.

Fortunately, a bit of logic and common sense will keep you clear of these pitfalls. Here's a look at some common missteps -- and how to avoid them.

The Value Trap
A chaotic market makes it easier for investors to convince themselves that because a stock -- or a sector or a market -- is cheap, it's a great value. Sometimes, though, there's a good reason that a stock or sector is cheap: It's in trouble. You need to look past the share price or valuation and examine the fundamentals of the company, the industry and the economy before you decide that something is a bargain.

"Within industries, not all companies are created equal; some will fare better than others," says Mr. Blum. It's through research, not instinct or stock price, that investors discover the real values, he adds.

The Risk Trap
One reason investors are so vulnerable to the value trap is that another force is at work -- the urge to recoup losses. Investors who are desperate to make back some of what they have lost and return to "normal" are more willing to take outsize bets on individual stocks or narrowly focused exchange-traded funds.

But that approach is even more unlikely to work in this market environment; the combination of the credit crunch and the recession have made the stock market dangerously volatile. A concentrated portfolio is especially risky, advisers argue.

Investors can't accept that individual stocks, or stocks overall, aren't likely to deliver a reliable stream of double-digit profits each year as in the past, says Bill Schultheis, a partner at Soundmark Wealth Management LLC, a financial-planning firm in Kirkland, Washington.
To combat the risk trap, Mr. Schultheis spends a lot of time preaching the virtues of investment basics like diversification and building returns steadily through compound interest and dividends.

The Scapegoat Trap
Like the children in humorist Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, people believe they are all above average -- at investing. Overconfidence makes it easy to blame your financial adviser for your outsize losses last year, and to think you'd be better off making the big decisions yourself.
But that attitude ignores a basic fact: In this market, nearly everyone is in the same boat, more or less, regardless of who's managing their money. Ditching your professional help and going it alone is a bad idea.

"There are certainly some financial advisers out there who weren't good at what they did, but the worst mistake someone can make is to fire that individual and decide to do it all themselves instead of finding someone better," says Mr. Blum.

The reality, he says, is that few investors have the time, patience or expertise needed to develop asset-allocation plans and manage diversified portfolios. "Firing a specific adviser may be rational; deciding to be your own financial adviser probably isn't," he says.

The Paralysis Trap
The market debacle has left many investors too terrified to act at all, whether to sell portfolio holdings to limit losses or take advantage of what may be appealing long-term investment opportunities. Some advisers report clients in their 30s and early 40s shunning stocks altogether, when the real risk that they face is likely to be inflation -- which may eat up their money if they keep it out of riskier investments that are likely to trounce rising inflation rates over the next decade or two.

"The chance of suffering more pain is so intense that they can't imagine a world that will be better," says Joe Sheehan, a partner at Moneta Group, a wealth-management firm in St. Louis. "Two years ago, they would have jumped at the chance to buy more of stocks they already owned at these low prices; now they are frozen in place and won't respond."

Mr. Sheehan tries to persuade clients of a simple fact: The world hasn't changed dramatically enough to justify paralysis. "About 92% of Americans are still employed; the S&P 500 is not going to zero," he says.

Mr. Sheehan finds himself pointing to psychological studies showing that people tend to rely too heavily on what has happened in the recent past when it comes to predicting the future. "That's one reason we're in this mess in the first place," he says.

Among other things, he notes, investors and homeowners believed that housing prices could only go up -- leading to the bubble that got millions of homeowners in horrible financial trouble.

The Comfort Trap
"When people are fearful, Wall Street comes out with a product that tries to make you feel good by promising you safety," says Andrew Mehalko, chief investment officer of GenSpring Family Offices LLC in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.

For instance, Mr. Mehalko expects one of the hottest-selling products this year to be principal-protected notes, just as they were after the bear market of 2001-02. While these vehicles -- which promise to preserve your principal investment -- may provide reassurance, they often also come with hefty fees and can sharply limit your upside potential.

As a general rule, a low-risk strategy will produce minimal returns. So, while you may feel the urge to lock up all your capital in ultrasafe strategies, you need to be prepared to invest some of it in riskier products.

Meanwhile, Mr. Sheehan reports that some of his clients have even developed an aversion to mortgages. That may be rational for people with no nest egg or a job that's at risk, but it's not something that everyone should be worrying about.

"It's not logical at all," he says, because some have relatively little mortgage debt relative to home value, hold long-term fixed mortgages at the relatively low rate of 5% or so and gain from the tax deduction for mortgage interest.

Yet "all they want to do is pay off that mortgage," to get rid of "this toxic thing -- a mortgage," he says.

The Chasing-the-News Trap
If you're a financial-news junkie, it's tempting to try to react to each twist and turn of the market. But the best thing you can do is turn off the news, put the remote control down on the coffee table and step away from your television set.

In times like these -- an almost unbelievably volatile stock market, a distorted bond market and an economic meltdown -- newshounds can do tremendous damage to their portfolios. Trying to judge exactly the right moment to get into the market -- and then jump out again a day or two later -- is likely to leave you with big headaches and outsize trading expenses.

An "atmosphere of constant, breathless hysteria" isn't conducive to making smart investing moves, says Carol Clark, an investment principal at Lowry Hill, a wealth-management firm in Minneapolis. "That's not what long-term investing is all about.

"Many of those [300-point] interday moves simply don't make a lot of sense in the first place, so how can it be sensible to try and respond to them?" she asks.

Instead of acting on every new development, it's better to look past the noise and invest small amounts regularly, an approach known as dollar-cost averaging. A strategy based on a solid asset-allocation plan and dollar-cost averaging is more likely to lead to sustainable gains over the longer haul.

Ms. Clark offers one final observation. Usually, investors find themselves in traps "because your emotions have run away with your logical thinking," she says. "You need to find ways to start thinking logically again."

Sometimes it helps to do something as simple as making a list of your investment goals and putting it on the refrigerator. Whenever you're tempted to act impulsively in response to something you see on television or hear from a friend at a dinner party, you can go back to that list and remind yourself that yanking money out of the market may not be the best strategy.

"Then, when you feel an urge to turn on CNBC, you train yourself to look at the list instead," she says.

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