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Trading High

Steve Abramowitz

WHILE HANGING OUT at the local Charles Schwab office, you meet a high-octane trader named Hal. He paces up and down like the Energizer bunny and talks so fast you can’t get a word in. Incessantly checking his phone, he abruptly gestures to the door and insists you join him for lunch. Apparently, Apple is up three points, his options are in-the-money and he wants to celebrate.

Hal speeds to a nearby Subway, where he proceeds to order the Spicy Italian for both of you. Just as you take a bite, he puts down his phone and cringes as his face turns red. He wails that the virus scourge has crimped iPhone sales in China. Apple is now down six and his near-term options will expire worthless.

What’s with this guy? This isn’t just a case of the Starbucks jitters. Hal’s behavior shows the telltale signs of a manicky temperament—unbounded energy, flamboyance and a big appetite for risk-taking.

Now, don’t get me wrong, all investing involves risk. Last year, even bond investors got acquainted with the old saw, “no pain, no gain.” But today, we aren’t just talking about your Uncle Louie, who drums his fingers on the table before the food arrives. Instead, we’re pondering folks with a high need for arousal and action that undermines their investment success.

That clearly includes day traders and options players. Their hyperactivity is all too obvious. But what about more subtle manifestations, to which most of us are susceptible? Sometimes, a manic temperament masquerades as legitimate portfolio changes, like portfolio rebalancing every quarter or even every month.

Or how about mutual fund switching? You thought funds were a lot safer than owning individual stocks. They usually are. But they’re also vulnerable to arousal abuse. Do you choose fund families with the most lenient exchange privileges? Do you really need to shift from one sector fund to another based on a slick podcast presentation? The temptation is made all the greater by no fund redemption fees. Is the goal here really portfolio improvement—or is it more truthfully a need for excitement on a grey and boring winter day?

Portfolio reallocation can be a special case of switching syndrome. Has international begun to move? Why not jump in? Maybe the tech debacle has run its course, so you bolt out of defensive stocks and back into growth shares. My own recent sin: I succumbed to the much-ballyhooed January effect, which promises a run for small-cap stocks from two weeks before through two weeks after New Year’s. Well, maybe next year.

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Are you suffering from FOMO, or fear of missing out? Following the money can work for a month or two until investors’ collective common sense reasserts itself. Remember meme stocks like GameStop? Such herding behavior by FOMO crowds isn’t confined just to stock manipulators. Ominously, Hee Jin Kim and his associates found FOMO to be almost as common among active stock traders as among bitcoin speculators.

Given to hyperactivity? Start by acknowledging that you’re a high-arousal type who thrills to action and the taking of risk. You can’t start to get control over your weakness as an investor until you admit it. Take solace from knowing that manic-proneness has been related to creativity and high productivity.

A new year is a good time to resolve to learn and practice self-discipline. You might leave your portfolio alone and instead take refuge in activities that also promise an action hit, like a formidable hike, a challenging new exercise routine or competitive sports. Alternatively, you might trade investments on paper only, keeping a record of your performance relative to a benchmark. Doesn’t sound satisfying? For those who would otherwise suffer withdrawal pangs, several commentators have recommended a solution: Put 90% or 95% of your investment money into mutual funds and exchange-traded funds, and then use the remainder to trade individual stocks.

Meanwhile, seek support from others for your newfound commitment to self-control. Take counsel and encouragement from family and friends. Find a buddy who, say, enjoys streaming action movies with you. Maybe you’re fortunate to have a partner who’ll review your monthly brokerage statements with you and offer kudos when you show greater restraint. What if you feel your trading life has spun out of control and losses are mounting? You might consult a therapist or join a support group for overactive traders, such as Gamblers Anonymous.

One final suggestion: Try reading buy-and-hold classics like Jeremy Siegel’s Stocks for the Long Run and John Bogle’s Little Book of Common Sense Investing. To be sure, we can change personality only so much. Still, returns are maximized by keeping our lust for action in check. Take a page from Warren Buffett’s playbook and accept that, when it comes to investing, boring is beautiful.

Steve Abramowitz is a psychologist in Sacramento, California. Earlier in his career, Steve was a university professor, including serving as research director for the psychiatry department at the University of California, Davis. He also ran his own investment advisory firm. Check out Steve’s earlier articles.

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manager
manager
4 days ago

One sentence sums up 90% of success in investing (with academic references):
“Hold a passive, well diversified, and low expense core portfolio of small & large value stocks through ETFs (Fama, Ellis, Malkiel) for 20+ year periods (Seigel, Ellis), and avoid paying annual AUM fees (Sharpe)”.

20 year rolling total returns of a 50/50 small & large value portfolio since 1931 : https://imgur.com/a/QN1tVOA

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
7 days ago

Steve – thanks for an intriguing article. I’m not much of a trader. I’m pretty convinced I’m the worst stock picker in North America, so I usually stick to index funds. I am a bit susceptible to FOMO, thinking I should have been smart enough to spot the most recent trend or market bottom. But I now the truth is I’m nowhere near smart enough to predict the market. I really enjoy your articles and your perspective.

steve abramowitz
steve abramowitz
7 days ago
Reply to  Rick Connor

Thank you. I can attest from my own personal experience you cannot possibly be the worst trader in North America. But you qualify as one of the most self-aware ones.

Kenneth Tobin
Kenneth Tobin
7 days ago

All you need to know -READ malkiel’s book, Random Walk Down Wall Street, for me by far the most influential book on investing in my lifetime

steve abramowitz
steve abramowitz
7 days ago
Reply to  Kenneth Tobin

One of the most influential, for sure. A real coincidence—I have just now finished an article on the elusive January effect of small cap outperformance. Malkiel sees it as doomed to extinction because of the smoothing impact of market efficiency.

Andrew Forsythe
Andrew Forsythe
7 days ago

Thanks for this, Steve. Your insights into the psychological side of investing and money matters are a great addition to Humble Dollar.

steve abramowitz
steve abramowitz
7 days ago

I’m floored. Coming from a productive fellow contributor is makes for a warm glow.

wtfwjtd
wtfwjtd
7 days ago

My family has a long history of addiction, so I’m painfully aware of this topic,and recognize a good write-up on the subject when I see one, thanks Steve! (See? The condition even manifests itself sometimes in run-on sentences. Geez!)
I especially appreciate the mention that manic tendencies are often associated with high levels of creativity and productivity. I’ve learned over the years, the key to avoiding most problems in this area is to channel those addictive tendencies towards productive, rather than destructive, activities–think of construction of a building or project, vs alcohol or substance abuse, for example. When it comes to investing, I’ve learned to focus more on tax efficiency and financial organization, rather than trying to out-smart the market. This has worked out well for the most part, but I still have to be careful not to over-think things. And I totally agree, those books you mention are great tonic for keeping proper perspective, for sure. Great stuff!

Michael1
Michael1
6 days ago
Reply to  wtfwjtd

Hear hear…

“When it comes to investing, I’ve learned to focus more on tax efficiency and financial organization, rather than trying to out-smart the market. This has worked out well for the most part, but I still have to be careful not to over-think things.”

steve abramowitz
steve abramowitz
7 days ago
Reply to  wtfwjtd

It’s always informative (and humbling) to meet up with someone who knows more about the topic than I do. I too have had to channel my energies into productive pursuits though I’m not sure I’ve been as successful at it as you have been. I learned some things from you about how to manage them. Writing for Humble Dollar has been a great outlet for some of that energy.

wtfwjtd
wtfwjtd
7 days ago

Writing for HD definitely qualifies as a productive and creative outlet! It’s always very useful to get the scientific as well as the practical-world experience angles to to various topics, and HD does a great job of presenting both, I think.

Olin
Olin
7 days ago

I always enjoy your articles. Now I have a new reference to the meaning of a H.O.T. investor!

steve abramowitz
steve abramowitz
7 days ago
Reply to  Olin

I’m being humbled all over the place by you guys! Your turn to educate me. What is H.O.T. Need to know because you say I am one!

Olin
Olin
7 days ago

LOL! H.O.T. meaning High-Octane Trader as referenced in your first sentence.

steve abramowitz
steve abramowitz
7 days ago
Reply to  Olin

I was definitely one in my former life, hopefully I don’t quite qualify anymore.

Brent Wilson
Brent Wilson
7 days ago

Great advice, and I also appreciate the callout that making big, impulsive shifts in one’s asset allocation can be just as dangerous as impulsive stock picking.

steve abramowitz
steve abramowitz
7 days ago
Reply to  Brent Wilson

Thanks Brent. Glad to hear it was helpful and confirming for you. We think so much that our investment decisions are evidence-based when they’re often partly emotionally driven.

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