2015 Q4 Market Analysis: Cognitive Dissonance — More Stability, and More Uncertainty

One of the interesting challenges in studying investor behavior is accounting for the notion of cognitive dissonance, which describes the difficulty of weighing two contradictory ideas at the same time.

Consider how you would describe yourself. Are you a nice person? As you reflect on the affirmative, you might also remember a time when you acted with indifference or even cruelty, bringing about an uncomfortable feeling as you ponder this seeming contradiction; I think I’m nice, but I’ve also done some not-so-nice things.

As a behavioral “problem,” people often manage this uncomfortable feeling by ignoring or disregarding information that conflicts with their preferred view. Put differently, we usually dismiss the memories of our being unkind in favor of our positive self-image. The problem is obvious; by filtering the information to align with our preferred perception, we have an incomplete picture of a complex reality.

This filtering affects our worldviews, too. Consider your view of the U.S. economic recovery. Has there even been one? For many, the recovery has not improved net wealth, job prospects, income, or confidence in the future. Recent presidential debates have focused economic discussions on the economy’s weakness.

Yet by nearly every statistical measure, the U.S. economy is strong and growing; the stock market has enjoyed a bull run for more than five years, unemployment is down to 5% (with college graduate unemployment down to 2.5%!), inflation remains under 2%, the dollar is at decade highs against the euro and the yen, and companies report record earnings. Nevertheless, many believe that the economy continues to struggle, perhaps inspired by weak wage growth.

The truth is somewhere between. One feature of this economic recovery continues to be a general shift towards higher-skilled jobs. Without marketable skills, education, and flexibility, many people have been left behind. Meanwhile, the recovery has delivered significant gains to investors, the highly educated, and flexible-work employees. The U.S. economy is expanding, but consumers are suspicious of the recovery’s underlying strength. Even though the stock market remains near all-time highs, our perceptions of the economy reflect this cognitive dissonance.

In spite of anecdotal evidence suggesting a weak recovery, most statistical analysis indicates the U.S. economy is strong: job creation has increased while inflation remains low. Following the late August stock market hiccup, the benchmark U.S. S&P 500 Index is up nearly 10%.

(S&P 500 Index performance 8/26/15 – 11/17/15. Chart from Google Finance.)

Meanwhile, U.S. bonds remained stable through October, as the Fed continues to defer a rate hike. With a great jobs report and continued evidence that inflation remains low, expectations have grown that the Federal Reserve will nudge the benchmark overnight rate by a quarter point, though we prefer they resist the temptation. Why? The risks facing the economy are asymmetric: there’s less chance that the economy overheats in the next quarter than falters.

A deferred hike provides the Fed with more opportunity to gauge macroeconomic impacts. Though the US’s economy is strong, many of the country’s international trading partners face concerning weakness, potentially slowing domestic growth. Further, where the Fed might typically raise rates to combat increasing Inflation, the evidence indicates inflation remains remarkably low. Finally, a quarter-point signal move does little to provide “ammunition” for the Fed if it faces sudden weakness; better to keep the rates low a little longer and maintain a watchful eye than risk slowing an economy that doesn’t show signs of overheating.

Developed international markets have been volatile, up about 3% after tumbling by 9% during the worldwide correction at the end of August.

(3-month performance chart, ending November 17, 2015 of IEFA, an ETF tracking the MSCI Developed Markets Index. Chart from Google Finance.)

(3-month performance chart, ending November 17, 2015 of IEFA, an ETF tracking the MSCI Developed Markets Index. Chart from Google Finance.)

The European Central Bank began a version of quantitative easing to offset austere fiscal programs, which weakened eurozone economies. The British economy has also slowed. The Japanese economy reentered a recession in spite of more aggressive government spending, as a shrinking workforce struggles to sustain output. More broadly, the outlook for Europe remains unclear — the success of the a single economic zone has been repeatedly tested over the last few years, with debt issues across the southern half of the continent, suggestions that Greece drop out of the currency union, and questions about how to handle the influx of Syrian refugees.

The lack of synchronicity between the Fed and other central banks have interesting consequences for global markets. The minutes of Fed meetings and speeches given by various policymakers suggest that the US will be first to raise rates among the major central banks. This action has already led to a strengthening dollar as international investors transition to dollars. Meanwhile, emerging markets are at risk of getting trampled as the dollar strengthens against other currencies.

Emerging markets have stabilized somewhat after being hit hard by three factors: a) an economic slowdown in China has led to lower demand for construction supplies, including commodities; b) global decrease in commodity demand has softened prices; and c) weakness in many developed nations reduced trade. Oil prices have collapsed from 2014, down nearly 60% this year.

The chart below shows the relative performance of IEFA and GSG, ETFs tracking an emerging markets index and a commodities index, respectively.

6-month performance chart, ending November 17, 2015 of IEMG and GSG, ETFs tracking the MSCI Emerging Markets Index and the S&P GSCI Commodities Index. Chart from Google Finance.

(6-month performance chart, ending November 17, 2015 of IEMG and GSG, ETFs tracking the MSCI Emerging Markets Index and the S&P GSCI Commodities Index. Chart from Google Finance.)

Returning to the notion of cognitive dissonance, we have lots of conflicting information about the state of global markets, but we should avoid filtering to fit our preferred worldview. Markets around the world remain in a state of flux; smaller U.S. companies have done well, while large-cap U.S. stocks and developed markets tread water in 2015, and emerging markets declined significantly. This state of uncertainty is exactly the reason it is valuable to be globally diversified in many asset classes.


Diversified portfolios help us manage conflicting information; we remain exposed to multiple opportunities while reducing the risks associated with the ups and downs of market moves. This is especially important when markets yield conflicting information and do not always move in the same direction.
Aaron Gubin
Aaron Gubin leads research for SigFig’s Wealth Management team. He holds a Ph.D. in Finance and taught investments and portfolio management to graduate and undergraduate students before coming to SigFig. His research focuses on asset allocation, behavioral finance, and investment management.