Wednesday, September 5th, 2012
investment beliefs

What are your investment beliefs?

Such a simple question — and so hard for most market participants to answer.  Go ahead, take a shot at making a list of your beliefs and see what you end up with.

Perhaps you’ll start with your take on market efficiency and your thoughts about passive versus active management.  That’s a logical place to begin, given how many decisions hinge on that one divide.  Perhaps you see efficiency in some areas and the opportunity to add value in others.  For the latter situations, how do you expect to add that value?  On and on we could go with the questions, from the macro to the micro, sketching the framework upon which your choices will be made.

That framework will look different depending upon where you are in the investment ecosystem.  A do-it-yourself investor is able to define his beliefs and act upon them directly, although most individuals are not adequately prepared to do so.

Those that work with financial advisors need to think about the interaction between an advisor’s belief system and their own — as well as the issues that can arise when one person is being paid for the advice and another is paying for it.  Incentives can sometimes swamp beliefs and the fear of losing business (or losing face) can distort decision making.

Shifting gears, let’s say that you are an employee of an organization that manages hundreds of billions of dollars.  What are the organization’s beliefs?  What are yours?  How temporal are they?  Are they formed by the rapid growth in assets of the latest hot product — or the most recent area of strong relative performance — or are there more permanent underpinnings?

Perhaps you are a fiduciary that’s responsible for working with others to select firms to manage assets for a pension plan or an endowment.  What are your beliefs (and those of the other decision makers individually and as a group) and how do they ultimately translate into the individual purchases and sales that determine performance?

As a consultant on investment process, it’s usually not too hard for me to locate a wedge issue that is evidence of a gap between stated beliefs and their application.  I have also written about this topic in a variety of ways over the years.  That’s why I was interested to see articles in Pensions & Investments about a survey it did in conjunction with Oxford University.Pensions & Investment | Here are the articles (some may be only available to subscribers).

In the print edition of July 23, the article was titled, “Having belief set is the key to future returns.”  The headline was not a statement of fact, but of the opinions (beliefs, if you will) of the survey respondents.  There was no proof offered.

And in my consulting, I don’t offer one either.  But I agree wholeheartedly that an exploration of beliefs is a necessary precursor to improving an investment decision process.

Notice that I used the word “exploration” rather than “statement.”  It is the consideration of the key issues that should inform beliefs, not a statement of beliefs that should close off debate about them.  Knowing where to stand your ground is important, but beliefs that are treated as immutable can sometimes lead to bad returns rather than good ones.

So, yes, it’s always good to hear a clear statement of beliefs and be able to see how they translate into specific decisions that resonate with them.  But tell me about the ways in which your beliefs collide and intersect, how they migrate over time and why, and what circumstances would call for a change in those beliefs (or a diversification of them) rather than a rote affirmation of those of the past.

If you can do that, you’ll be better prepared for the inevitable tests ahead.