Q1 Quarterly Review: Enjoy the Ride, but Don’t Drop the Reins

What would you say drives your investment decisions: hard facts or gut feelings? The line between the two can feel blurry when your methodology isn’t well defined. Even when you swear you’d never let world affairs distract you from your strategy, natural human biases can sabotage your best efforts.

When it comes to portfolio analysis and investment decisions, we know we should emphasize facts and critical thinking. However, we tend to gravitate toward the data that supports our beliefs — this is called “confirmation bias.” Unfortunately, simply being aware of your biases isn’t enough to steer clear of their effects. You need controls in place that will help you sidestep subjectivity when emotion threatens to obscure logic.

 

Seeking evidence in an echo chamber

When faced with complex matters such as investment evaluation or political views, the data and evidence we gather is often imperfect. We accept or discard facts based on personal opinion rather than objective relevance, and our views often determine which data we seek.

Take the recent US presidential election, for example. Though there were no major economic events directly preceding or following the election, Gallup observed strong shifts in public perception of the US economy during that time. The direction in which those perceptions skewed depended on the political leaning of poll respondents.

Objectively, the condition of the US economy should not change in such a short timeframe, which suggests the influence of prior opinion. How the respondents felt about the election seemingly affected their response to the question.

Humans are biased to prefer information that conforms to our existing worldviews and avoid data that does not. Consider how rarely we read or watch news from sources that tend toward an opposing political viewpoint. A 2012 Pew Research poll indicates that just 10% of Fox News viewers classified themselves as liberal, while 32% of MSNBC viewers classify themselves as conservative.

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Seeing what we expect to see

Not only do we struggle to gather adequate information, but we also tend to shape our interpretations of that data to fit our worldviews. When confronted with facts that directly contradict their convictions, humans tend to double down on their beliefs and ignore the evidence. Consider how often anyone actually “wins” that heated Thanksgiving dinner debate.

Rather than making a conscious effort to be open-minded as to where data and investigation take us, our rationale is often distorted by our desired result. In her excellent review of motivated reasoning research, social psychologist Ziva Kunda concludes, “People are more likely to arrive at conclusions…they want to arrive at.”

This human tendency is important to remember when reviewing the markets’ performance. Though equities largely performed well in Q1, the psychological lesson here is crucial: In order to objectively evaluate all the relevant data, you must first establish a complete methodological approach.

 

A healthy start to the year

Following last year’s presidential election, US stock markets responded positively, rising more than 10%. About half that gain came in the first quarter of 2017, with US stock markets up 5% since January.

image003(Chart illustrates the price history of the S&P 500 from November 8, 2016 through March 31, 2017; source: Google Finance.)

Though market performance and economic conditions are not always in sync, the US economy is healthy and the underlying economic data continues to improve. Unemployment nudged down to 4.7% in February and inflation has slowly risen to meet the Federal Reserve’s 2% target.

In mid-March, the Fed affirmed the general assessment that economic recovery is in full swing by bumping up its benchmark interest rate to 0.75%-1.00%. The stock market responded positively to the increase — the third of its kind since the Great Recession. Meanwhile, US fixed income — which is sensitive to changes in interest rates, inflation, and economic outlook — has been a stable store of value for bond investors through the first quarter.

In last year’s closing letter to our clients, we suggested that Republicans might move quickly to lower taxes on corporations and investors. Though they stumbled with their initial efforts to replace the Affordable Care Act, tax reform remains high on their agenda — which could be a positive development for some US investors. On the other hand, President Trump has suggested trade deal renegotiations, the longer-term impacts of which are uncertain.

Nonetheless, with a strong economy and the continued prospect of tax cuts, US stock investors should continue to see promising short-term conditions.

 

Opportunities and challenges abroad

Internationally, stock markets are also generally healthy, though Europe continues to face challenges and uncertainty, with looming elections in several major countries, lagging economic growth in several nations and negotiations regarding the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. International developed stock markets, including Europe and Japan, outperformed US equities, rising 7.5% in the first quarter of 2017.

image005(Chart illustrates the year-to-date price performance of VEA, an ETF tracking developed market equities, as of March 31, 2017; source: Google Finance.)

Last quarter, we noted that anti-trade and nationalistic sentiments in a number of developed countries might impede the economic growth of emerging markets. We also cautioned that though the US stock market outperformed other countries to close out 2016, it was a trend that probably wouldn’t continue. Disciplined investors who diversified their portfolios to lower expected risk and gain greater exposure to different markets were rewarded in the first quarter, when emerging market stocks averaged an 11% jump in value.

image007(Chart illustrates the year-to-date price performance of VWO, an ETF tracking emerging market equities, as of March 31, 2017; source: Google Finance.)

 

Committing to consistency

Remember, typical investors are inherently biased toward preferred outcomes in reasoning. We naturally want to find and accept information that aligns with our preconceptions. For example, you may hear that stock markets are doing very well across the globe and incorrectly conclude that shifting to a stock-heavy allocation is the best path forward.

The evidence remains, however, that a cautious approach is more effective, and investors shouldn’t try to time the markets. Asset class performance is seldom consistent or predictable, and economic challenges and pitfalls are inevitable. Though the US economy is strong and tax reform appears high on the Republican agenda, we don’t know the effect that trade negotiations, international elections, and interest rate hikes may have on investor portfolios.

Through careful consideration of relevant data, we can objectively evaluate portfolio performance and make informed decisions about how to invest for the future. This is especially important in today’s market environment, which is fraught with political influences and confusing economic data.

SigFig works to avoid these biases by using diverse and consistent sources to reveal the adequate depth and breadth of the underlying characteristics of the market. Whether markets are up or down, our investment team stresses objective analysis and a consistent methodological approach. In the coming quarter, our investment team continues to recommend a strategic, internationally diversified portfolio that invests in a wide array of asset classes to provide a balanced tradeoff of risk and return.
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.