The John C. Bogle Center for Financial Literacy is pleased to sponsor the 25th episode of Bogleheads® Live. Dan Egan, VP of Behavioral Finance & Investing at Betterment joins us to discuss systematic investment management + behavioral design.
Dan Egan on behavioral finance
Jon Luskin: Bogleheads® Live is our ongoing Twitter Space series where the do-it-yourself investor community asks their questions to financial experts live on Twitter. You can ask your questions by joining us for the next Twitter Space. Get the dates and times for the next Bogleheads® Live by following the John C. Bogle Center for Financial Literacy on Twitter. That's @ bogleheads twitter.
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Thank you for joining us for the 25th Bogleheads® Live, where the do-it-yourself investor community ask questions to financial experts live. My name is Jon Luskin, and I'm your host. Our guest for today is Dan Egan, returning for his second stint on Bogleheads® Live.
Let's start by talking about the Bogleheads®, a community of do-it-yourself investors who believe in keeping it simple, following a small number of tried-and-true investing principles.
This episode of Bogleheads® Live, as with all episodes, is brought to you by the John C. Bogle Center for Financial Literacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people make better financial decisions. Visit our newly redesigned website at boglecenter.net to find valuable information and to make a tax-deductible donation.
Let's get started on today's show with Dan Egan. Dan Egan is Vice President of Behavioral Finance and Investing at Betterment. He has spent his career using behavioral finance to help people make better financial and investment decisions. Dan is a published author of multiple publications related to behavioral economics. He lectures at New York University, London's Business School and the London School of Economics on that topic.
Dan, thank you for joining us on Bogleheads® Live today. Let's start with what do Bogleheads® need to know about systematic investment management?
Dan Egan: Thank you very much for having me. Always enjoy these conversations. When we spoke last time, one of the things we wanted to touch on more was a lot of the insights that we've used inside Betterment to make our investment process and advice process a little bit more consistent and coherent. And that mostly involves systemizing it. That's as much about removing a lot of the behavioral issues that come up from a decision-making process and stepping back and deciding what's important to work on versus not.
The first element of it that is important to wrap your head around is every day we go around and we just make lots of decisions in the moment. We don't think about how we make these decisions. What am I going to have for breakfast? How am I going to do this? And that's, that works for most things. When you're figuring out how to get into work in the morning, it's okay if you're on automatic.
When making serious decisions that have long-term consequences that might be more complicated, we generally want to think not just about each individual decision, but we want to think about the process by which we have made those decisions.
A good example of this, is the way that we actually run the government in the country. If you think about the Constitution, a lot of the Constitution is a process document. It says this is how you will go about doing things. This is how many votes in this house are required to change something. Here's how the government is divided up so that there are checks and balances. It's not so much a, “here's what is right and wrong” as a, “here's how you can go about making laws and decisions.”
It's very similar when it comes to making investment decisions or even overall financial plans. There's an element of saying, “let's take a step back and think about how we're going to go about making decisions.” When are we going to make them, what process are we going to follow? How often are we going to update it? There's an unusual thing going on, how will we go about it?
Thinking about the process that you're going to use to make decisions is very helpful. It actually reduces the number of decisions you have to make. So having a process that says like, “I am going to try to automate or have a checklist flow for the stuff that I shouldn't be thinking about that often, and I'm going to spend a lot of time and attention on what matters, what's most important, and how do I go about optimizing that.”
One thing I want to get out there first of all. It is very possible to human size this. You don't have to write code. It helps if you have things like templates, like checklists, and like Microsoft Excel® sheets, to help you work through this.
How do I do this at a scale that is right for me? In terms of doing it systematically and in a repeatable way where, if you go through your quarterly check-in - me and my wife have a quarterly check-in - and you say like, there's part of that that wasn't useful at all. Should we remove that? And then we do need to think more and more about the role that our kids are going to play in the decisions we're making here. How do we want to think about that?
And so the process is also a living thing. This is not like you built it once and it’s set in stone and it does the same thing over and over again. The process is going to change in terms of what's effective for you each time.
And the last thing that I just want to reiterate is, it's not just about investing. There's a lot of elements of this process that are much more about your financial circumstances and financial plan for the future that are more key than any investment-related decisions that you're going to make, per se, on any given process check.
So those are the big things. Creating the process, make it right for you, human size it to you, and try and have it be as kind of open and expansive as possible so that it encompasses not just investing but also other financial matters.
Jon Luskin: Dan, I love automation because it makes investing something you don't have to think about. You sign up for that workplace retirement plan, and hopefully it's low-cost. They've got money coming out of your paycheck, investing for long term growth without having to do anything, without having to think about it.
Now, folks, they can do this with their own IRA account, with their own plain-vanilla taxable account. Set up those automatic ongoing contributions that can help them take advantage of inertia bias. Hey, set up once, let it do its thing.
Jon Luskin, your Bogleheads® Live host, jumping in for a quick podcast edit. Here, I mentioned ‘inertia bias’. Let's break that down for those who aren't behavioral finance nerds. Inertia bias is the tendency for someone to keep doing what they've already been doing. And that's what makes a low-cost workplace retirement plan so great, if you're already signed up for it. Because money automatically goes into your retirement account for long-term investment growth. And that will continue to happen until you do something else to change that.
And now, back to the show.
What considerations should do-it-yourself investors have in creating their own systematic investment management program?
Dan Egan: That's a great way of putting it. I probably have, in terms of really serious decisions, I only have the mental ability to make 40 of those every day. And so, a lot of what we're trying to do with this process is we're trying to reduce the number of low impact decisions we have to make every day.
And we're reviewing our attention and our decision making as a scarce resource that we really want to put it towards its highest use type thing. A process is supposed to help protect your attention and brain power from being used up on silly little decisions that are low impact.
One of the ways we do this is by making a decision once, thinking about it once, and then repeating that decision thoughtlessly in the future. And I mean that in a good way.
I might spend one day being like, "Okay, Dan, what rule are you going to use for rebalancing your portfolio?" I might end up saying, “well, if the sum of the square of the deviations of the portfolio exceed 7%, I'm going to rebalance it back so that it is just at 2% or 3%.” I don't need to do it all the way to zero.
So, I've made that decision and I've created a little Excel® spreadsheet to help me with it. I don't want to ever have to think about that again. That decision - once I've made it once - much like setting up an automatic savings plan or something, it should be something that frees me to not have to make that decision over and over again. Which means that one of the highest impact things you can do process-wise is look at like, “where am I spending time making decisions that it's not high impact and I can systematize it so that I'm not having to think about it?” I can just plug some numbers into a spreadsheet, it'll give me the answer, and I just go off and do it. And I don't have to spend brain power on it. Outsourcing the monotony and the weak parts of tech.
I live by my calendar. If I didn't have an external calendar that told me like, “hey, this is the third Thursday of the month, it is the time that you sit down with your wife and you go over your finances.” I would forget about it. It would fall by the wayside. So, I'm also a big fan of trying to outsource memory and all that sort of monotonous routine stuff. Spreadsheets, et cetera. Use tech as much as possible to do that for you.
Another element of it, the thing that happens to people, is we are better deciders - we are more virtuous - when we're thinking about what we're going to do in the future. We are better at having arguments and discussions when something is far off and a little bit more abstract than when it's right here in the moment.
So, a good example is how are you going to handle it if you get a raise? Let's say this year, you get a 15% raise. If you are making the decision about what to do with that in the moment when you've learned about it, when you are chatting with your significant other and you're like, “do we put it towards this? Do we put it towards that? How much of it should we spend, et cetera?” Because you're in the moment, you're going to be more shortsighted then.
One of the really good parts about a process is once we've ironed out the day-to-day repetitive stuff, it encourages you and frees you to start thinking about, “what are the decisions in the future that I'm going to have coming up that it would be good for me to think about now how we're going to play that out.”
This is like 10 years in the future; when my daughter starts thinking about going to college. What do we think about state colleges? What do we think about how much we're going to put towards it versus what we're going to expect her to invest?
If you think about doing your grocery shopping either in advance with a list or even online when it's two days away, or when you are in the grocery store and you are hungry and you are thinking, “what do I want for dinner tonight? I really want some cheeseburgers.” I'm going to go for the least healthy, more impulsive thing than when I'm thinking about something in the future.
Using some time to think about what are future decisions I'm going to make and let's think about them and talk about them now so that when they happen, I am not having to make those decisions and gather that information in a rush. And in a moment when it's more emotionally salient. I can just execute a plan that I made when I was clearer of mind and when I wasn't like double dipping on my brain power. I'm not both saying, how do I solve this problem and how do I execute the solution to this problem?
Solve the problem in advance and get through. Give yourself some time, and then when the day comes, when you get that raise you say, “okay, I'm not going to lifestyle creep this raise. I'm going to take 75% of it and put it towards paying down debt or saving more for my kids' college education, and 25% of it will be the bump in standard of living that we allow ourselves.” Having those conversations in advance allows you to make the decisions and execute on them easier in the moment.
Jon Luskin: It's so fascinating with respect to, if you plan farther ahead in the future, you make better decisions about it. That is a very interesting takeaway.
I can't help but wonder how far ahead do you have to plan to do that, and then what happens when circumstances change? What's the best approach then?
Dan Egan: In general, I think it's usually good to over-explore. This isn't necessarily that you're going to write things down as a plan of this is what we're going to do, but to dream - I would put it - about possibilities. And sometimes these are bad dreams.
Let's play through, what if we both lost our jobs? What would be the scenario? How would we get through that? Okay. Number one, we'd obviously have to reign in this or that spending, this is how much emergency fund we have that would cover this many months’ worth of expenses. What would you do? What would I do? Like how much pressure would be we be under to take a new job that one of us didn't want?
Having those conversations when it's not an actual threat, when the adrenaline isn't up, when the cortisol isn't coursing through your veins, it's a better time to have them even if they feel unpleasant. It allows you to game out what the possible solutions are. And your brain's going to be better at coming up with innovative or novel or more stable solutions if you're doing it when you aren't under duress - when you aren't under pressure.
So, the first thing is dream. Spend your time exploring with like dreams and nightmares. It's a “what if” - it's not meant to be like, this is definitely what we're going to do. But it gives you the space to brainstorm and think about things creatively before you're under pressure.
If you find yourself under pressure, having existing structure that you can fall back on is very, very helpful. If you have a financial plan set up, it doesn't need to be incredibly detailed, but you say, “okay, something bad just happened. What do we actually need to worry about? What part of our financial circumstances are going to be negatively impacted by this versus which parts are actually okay and we don't need to worry about it?”
Maybe if one of us loses our job, that's not good, but we're not under pressure where we have to do anything short-term or impulsive to fix it. If the car breaks down, how would we handle that? Are we going to get a rental? How quickly do we care about finding a new one? Do we even need to replace the car? Are there other ways that we could get around that would make more sense for us?
Having a structure of your finances where it's familiar to you, where you know what the implications are of any bumps or potholes that you hit along the way allows you to have, number one, less stressful conversations when they happen because there isn't that sense of, does this blow everything up? Does this touch everything? Is this something that we need to look at the broad specs of? And allows you to focus on, “okay, this affects just these three areas. It affects this one urgently and these other two not urgently. So, we'll set them aside.”
Let's just think about the nice smaller contained problem that we're aware of because of the fact that we have a systematic structure and scaffold through how to view our money right now.
There's two ways of thinking that people exist in. One is very broad-framed. And this is the dreamy, big picture, let's talk about what makes our life good, what makes it bad? How do we feel about things? What are our life goals? It's very amorphous and ambiguous, but it actually is what gives you a sense of importance and priority and structure.
Then there's another way which is problem solving. And the problem solving is very narrow. I'm going to zoom in on this specific issue and I'm going to try to figure out how to solve just this specific issue.
And you really need to be able to jump back and forth between both of them. Because the problem solving is very good at problem solving that specific problem. The big picture is good at saying, “is this actually a problem that is important to me to solve? Or is this something that I can simply let go? Is this a loss? That actually, in the big scheme of things, I didn't really like that car anyway. I'm not too busted about it. I'm quite looking forward to spending $6,000 on a e-bike to get around, which I've been looking forward to anyway. So, this is the catalyst where I'm going to not go out and buy another $26,000 car. I'm going to buy a $6,000 e-bike.”
Being able to jump back and forth between the big picture, is this a problem? Do I care about it? Is it important to me? And then into the narrow of, yes, this is a problem. How are we going to solve it practically? Those are two different ways of thinking and it's really good to practice jumping back between each.
Jon Luskin: I can't help but think about the takeaway you shared just now: People make better decisions when they're not under pressure. I'm immediately going to think about the investment portfolio. Hey, market is down. That creates pressure, that's going to create some anxiety, some emotions. That's probably not the time to make a decision about your investment portfolio. Hence the famous line from Jack Bogle, “stay the course.”
What do do-it-yourself investors need to consider with respect to, hey, the market down, is now a time to reevaluate my portfolio given the cortisol that may be rushing through my system.
Dan Egan: I've learned over the years - be it myself, be it with my child - is that saying, “do nothing, just sit there,” et cetera. It's not actually the best way of thinking about how to take somebody who's in a high-pressured, high emotional state and deal with that.
If you have the anxiety, the energy that is coming from concern, you need to put it somewhere and channel it towards something. Instead of saying, “just sit on your hands and do nothing,” the answer is, “well, we're not going to do nothing. We are going to take this and we are going to channel it towards things that we know are definitely positive for us.”
I like to have a downturn playbook, and it's just a little checklist of things that it is good and important for me to do whenever the market takes a dip. One of them is, are there any investments that, if the market as a whole is down, you're actually quite happy to get out of it now? Maybe it was a high-fee investment that you got into years ago and hasn't really been doing that well lately. Maybe it's something that you inherited. Maybe there is a rebalancing between accounts - between IRAs and taxable accounts - that would be good to check on now. Are there areas where this is going to be a good opportunity to rebalance between your goals?
If the market as a whole goes down and I have a really important short-term goal, I may take money away from a goal that's longer-term and less important.
There's a whole list of these things that you can do. But I think that the important insight here is don't deny your humanity in this moment. Don't say, “no, I'm not going to do anything. I'm going to just stoically stare at all the red on the screen and say, “this too shall pass, and it's totally fine.”
No, we're going to say, “okay, when the market goes down, what is it a good opportunity to do? What are the things that you only want to be really thinking about and focused on when the market is down?” And let's do them. Let's take action. Let's fill up our to-do list with things that we know are unmitigated goods in this scenario and lean into it. And having those things to do - having that sense of like, “I've got an outlet for this anxiety that's going to allow me to get some stuff done,” is very positive.
It puts you in a different mindset. If you imagine that you were somebody who is not invested, and you've been waiting for a dip to get invested, you look at a downturn and you go, “hey, this is when I should be invested. This is when I'm ready to pull the trigger. I've been waiting 10 years while the market's gone straight up for this opportunity to say, ‘well, it just went down, so now is a good time to invest’”.
The feeling of concern or anxiety that comes from the market being down is usually based on, “I now feel like I was worth a little bit less, my portfolio is worth a little bit less than it used to be.” And there's a genuine question there, like, is that an opportunity to rebalance out of cash or think about what implication that actually has for the rest of your financial plan. In the same way that you would if you hadn't already been invested.
If you're concern about it, is based on, “well, my portfolio is worth less than it was before,” it's kind of like rearview mirror driving. You want to get out of that mindset and just start focusing on 10 years from now. There's that great quote from Jeff Bezos, “if we had a good quarter this quarter, it's because of decisions that we made three years ago, not because of decisions that we made last quarter.”
The time that it takes for good decisions to bear fruit is generally on the order of years. In that moment, ask yourself, “three years from now, what decisions am I going to wish that I had made today? What seeds am I going to plant today that are going to bear fruit three years from now?” Not, “what happened last month and am I down compared to last month?”
Jon Luskin: I love that take, Dan. Use that energy. Use that anxiety for good. Excellent point. Hey, we're not all those stoics. We can't just necessarily sit there and do nothing.
The idea to tax loss harvest during a downturn is a phenomenal one. Working with lots of folks, I come across all sorts of stuff they really don't want to be holding, but that they either bought a long time ago themselves before they knew about the importance of simple, low-cost investing, or perhaps -they're looking to move their portfolio to a simpler, low-cost approach having fired their high-fee asset manager.
They're going to have stuff they want to get rid of, and they might be putting that off because of the embedded unrealized gain. They can use that market downturn and the anxiety created from it to do some good. Phenomenal point. I love that.
All right, it looks like we’ve got a speaker request.
Audience #1 (Arun) v2: So, one of the issues that we've generally seen most of our clients do is whenever markets hit the all-time high, then suddenly there's this feeling that maybe I need to sell high and buy low. From a behavioral perspective, how do we handle this?
Dan Egan: One of the well-known, well-documented facets in behavioral finance - especially when it comes to individual stocks - is what's called the ‘disposition effect.’ Which is somewhat what you're saying, which is that it feels good to take gains and it feels bad to take losses.
You're more likely to see an investor sell a position that's in a gain than you are for them to sell a position that's in a loss. Selling at a loss means that you made a mistake. Maybe you're holding out hope that it'll recover. A lot of selling after somebody's experienced a loss in a position, there's a lot of selling that happens when it gets back to break even. Because they're like, “okay, I can finally get out of this thing and not feel like I made a horrible decision.” And on the flip side, there's a lot of upside churn when people are selling because they have gains in it.
I think there's a few things, macro and micro, that we can try and reorient people about here. The first is their relationship with financial media. Generally speaking, and I think this has probably changed over even my lifetime, the way that you consume financial media you're more likely to hear, understand things like all-time highs and when they happen. And they happen faster. There's more sort of short-term volatility in the markets now because markets are always on, there's more algorithmic trading, there's more access to information. Information moves faster when it's been released.
The more that you were plugged into whatever is going on in the media, and the more that you're following it, the more reactive you're going to be. It's going to be very hard to read things in the media like, “all-time highs, stocks are more overvalued than they've ever been, blah, blah, blah,” and not feel like you have to react to it in some way.
First element is defining a social media or a news media diet that allows you to consume it in a healthy way, but not necessarily in a way that drives you to make short-term decisions. So, that's just a question about like, hey, what news sources do you follow? What frequency do you follow them on? How do you think that they benefit your behavior? Can you think back to when did you make a really good or a really bad decision based upon something that you saw in the news that you felt like you had to react to? What sort of news sources bring anxiety to you such that you feel like you're more motivated to make decisions that might be a little bit more nearsighted. So, one is exploring that relationship with news media.
Another is trying to reframe the way that they think about their investments in terms of future versus past. An analogy I come back to a lot is this rearview mirror driving. For most of us, if you start out on a journey, you have some idea of a destination. That destination compared to where you are is going to give you a sense of which direction do I need to be going? Does it make sense to take highways versus local roads? Do I need to program in a stop for a bathroom break or a food break at some point?
You're never going to be chugging along the highway and be like, “wow, I'm traveling so fast. I should really probably get off this highway and go slow for a little bit.” That's because you're not looking in the rearview. You're not making decisions based upon what's happened in the past. You're just comparing where you are with where you want to be and using roads and maps to make decisions.
In investing, we need to start looking at our investments and so on as where we are versus where we want to be and the destination. It's not a question of, “I'm up 20% compared to where I was last year.” It's, “I am on track for a retirement that I'm going to be very happy with. And last year helped with that, but the fact is that 60%-70% of my “on-trackness” comes from my savings rate.
Reorienting people towards a destination and referencing where we are today. Where's your portfolio today? Where's your savings rate today? When we look ahead to how much you have to save in the future, how are we doing? What's our status from where we are to where we want to be rather than where we were? We are not looking at the odometer of the car, we're not looking at the odometer of the portfolio.
We're trying to say, “we want to spend this money someday.” The point, at some level, after you think about giving some money away to kids or legacy or whatever you want to do, the point is to end up with nothing. The question is really just a matter of “how good are we doing at tracking between where we are and where we want to be in the future?”
Are we doing that well? Are we taking the route that is best for that? It has nothing to do with where we were yesterday or last year or last month. Get more future-focused.
Jon Luskin: Perhaps said differently from what you said just now, Dan, turn off CNBC. There's probably not a lot of good info you're going to get from that, and I love how you phrased it. Look ahead. Don't look in that rearview mirror. I wrote a post about this recently - somewhat related - which is, “hey the market's down, my portfolio isn't necessarily invested the way it should have been. It was too aggressive. What do I do now?”
Well, that matters less. Imagine you had all that money in cash today, how would you invest it? If the answer isn't your current portfolio, then maybe you need to reevaluate your approach.
Dan, let's bring it to behavioral design. What do Bogleheads® need to know about behavioral design?
Dan Egan: Behavioral design is funny in that it's a little bit like using a font when you're writing an email to someone. And I would imagine most of us have never spent too much time thinking about what font we are going to use when we're emailing someone. You can't not choose a font in this modern, digital age. You can't write an email or a document without a font. That doesn't exist. There's no way of saying, “well, I'm just going to not have a font.”
And in the same way, there's no way to say like, “my portfolio interface, my trading interface, how I look at my accounts is not going to have a design.” No matter what, it's going to have a design. The question is just what does that design look like? What does it help you with and how does it impede you? There are little things about the way the interfaces are designed that can help us or hurt us when it comes to investing.
I'm going to start out with a really simple one. Color. Color is actually processed a different way. It's got like a different route in our brains than the actual information that it's trying to convey. There's kind of like a cool set of tests. I think they're called Stroop tests, in which you show somebody a word, and the word will be printed in blue and it will say “orange.” And people can identify the color and say the color way, way, way, way faster than they can say what the word says, what the color is that the word says. And it's actually really hard for your brain to parse the color that it's seeing versus the color that it is reading.
And this comes up in investing because obviously we have neutral colors. They're just black and white. And then we have these very evocative colors, red and green. Where red is going to make you feel bad. Something's down. It's not good. It's the color of blood. And green is going to feel good. It's the color of money, it's up. It's what a beautiful field looks like.
One of the things we don't think about is how those colors, when they're used very saliently, they make you feel something before you thought anything. Seeing the color red, it actually makes you feel worse. And you can think about this in a funny way. If you created the same interface and it showed you losses without those losses being red, you would not feel as bad about those losses as when it is red.
Jason Zweig wrote a great article a few years ago summarizing a bunch of the research that academics have done. We've done a little bit of this at Betterment.
The colors are impactful. Colors can be very powerful about how you feel. It's not about how you think, it's about how you feel and how you interpret those colors. One way to think about it is, “well, I don't want to have how I feel depend upon what the recent performance in my portfolio is, so I want to turn off color.” There are things where you turn off the color for certain websites so that you can read it, but you don't get that emotional impact. It's super interesting if you do this, you can turn your phone to gray scale so that it doesn't show you any colors.
Everything becomes way less emotionally powerful. It gets a little bit boring Now, you don't always want boring if you're looking at cool pictures of things. But when it comes to investing, it makes you feel like you're getting tossed around a lot less by emotion than you would be otherwise.
Jon Luskin: Super interesting, Dan. Color has such an impact on how you consider your investment returns.
Dan, any final thoughts you'd like to share? What do-it-yourself, investors should be considering when it comes to systematic investment management and behavioral design?
Dan Egan: Give yourself time to say, “I'm going to set aside half an hour to just write out the way I think I should be doing things. How I'm going to manage my portfolio, this is how often I'm going to check it, when I check it this is what I'm going to look out. Here's why I would rebalance it.”
This is you writing it down. Give yourself a sense where there's that opportunity to be more systematic, to reduce the number of daily, monthly, whatever it is, ad hoc decisions you have to make. How often am I going to check on my checking account and say like, “oh, is there extra cash in there that I should put somewhere?”
Write out, “here's how I want to be making decisions and what kind of pattern I want to have.” And I think you will find that there's a lot of opportunity to set up really good healthy habits and patterns for you to be more efficient and effective at managing your finances without making a lot more decisions. Make a good decision once and roll with execution thereafter.
Jon Luskin: And you can get free information about putting together your own investment policy statement on the Bogleheads® Wiki. I'll also link to that in the show notes for our podcast listeners.
Well, that's going to be it for all the time that we have for today. Thank you to Dan Egan for joining us today, and thank you for everyone who joined us for today's Bogleheads® Live.
Next week we'll have Colleen Jaconetti, a senior investment analyst at Vanguard’s Investment Strategy Group, discussing total return investing.
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Thank you again, everyone