Investors have a knack for piling into investments at the top and selling at the bottom. Many investors get caught up in media hype or fear and buy or sell investments at the peaks and valleys of the cycle. Why does this type of emotional investing happen and how can investors avoid both the euphoric and depressive investment traps? Read on for some tips on how to keep an even keel - and keep your investments on track.

Tutorial: Understanding Behavioral Finance

Investor Behavior
The behavior of investors has been well documented; there are numerous theories that attempt to explain the regret and overreaction that buyers and sellers experience when it comes to money and the potential gains and losses on that money. Investors' psyche overpowers rational thinking during times of stress, whether that stress is a result of euphoria or fear.

The typical non-professional investor is putting his hard-earned cash at stake and, while hoping for a gain, wants to protect that cash against losses. Investors get investment "information" from many sources, such as mainstream media, financial news, friends, family and co-workers. Oftentimes investors get enticed by the market during periods of market calm (low volatility) and prolonged bull markets.

Bull markets are periods when the market tends to go up indiscriminately. During such times of market exuberance, investors tend to listen to stories from friends or family members about how much money they are making in the market, creating a stir and compelling those not invested to test the waters. Likewise, when investors read stories about a bad economy or hear reports about a volatile or negative market period, fear takes over and they sell at the bottom. (Not all investors are mentally prepared for when a much-awaited bull market finally comes charging in. To learn more, check out Is Your Psyche Ready For A Bull Market?)

Bad Timing
The lag between when an event occurs and when it is reported is what typically causes investors to lose money. The media will report a bull market only once it has already hit; unless the trend continues, stocks will retract in upcoming periods. Investors, influenced by the reports, often choose these times of premium valuations to build up their portfolios. It is worrisome when the daily stock market report leads off the mainstream news because it creates a buzz and investors make decisions based on "opinions" that are often outdated. Market uncertainty creates fear and brings about an atmosphere of emotional investing.

Time Tested Theory
The theory that many market participants buy at the top and sell at the bottom has proved to be true based on historical money flow analysis. Money flow analysis looks at the net flow of funds for mutual funds. Over a period from 1988 through 2009, money flow analysis showed that when the market hit its peak or valley, money flows were at the highest levels.

Money continued to flow into funds until the market hit bottom, and only then did investors start to pull money out of the market and money flows turned negative. The net outflows peaked at market bottoms and continued to be negative even as the market moved into an upward trend. Because the market was shown to fall before funds were sold, and funds were often reinvested after the market had alreayd moved up, it's clear htat investors often fail to time their trades in the most beneficial manner.

A Bright Spot
Despite the strong tendencies that investors portray at the peaks and valleys, they have gotten other periods correct. Throughout the 1990s, there was a steady flow of funds into the market during a period when the market was on a prolonged bull run. Likewise from 2004 to 2007, during another strong bull market, investors poured money into the market. So it can be hypothesized that during periods of very little volatility (such as prolonged bull markets), investors become more comfortable in the market and begin to invest. However, during periods of volatility, or when bull or bear markets begin and end regularly, money flows tend to reflect confusion and the timing of the flows becomes mismatched with actual market movement. (Discover how some strange human tendencies can play out in the market. Are we really rational? Check out Understanding Investor Behavior.)

Strategies to Take the Emotion Out of Investing
A 2009 study of investment behavior by DALBAR showed that over the 20-year period from January 1989 to December 2008, the S&P 500 returned an average annual 8.4% but the average stock investor returned only 1.9% annually. The evidence suggests that emotional investing gets the best of the typical investor during periods of uncertainty. There are strategies, however, that can alleviate the guess-work and reduce the effect of poorly timing fund flows.

The most effective tends to be the dollar-cost averaging of investment dollars. Dollar cost averaging is a strategy where equal amounts of dollars are invested at a regular, predetermined interval. This strategy is good during all market conditions. During a downward trend, investors are purchasing shares at cheaper and cheaper prices. During an upward trend, the shares previously held in the portfolio are producing capital gains and fewer shares are being added at the higher price. The key to this strategy is to stay the course- set the strategy and don't tamper with it unless a major change warrants revisiting and rebalancing the established course. (There is more than one way to work this strategy. Find out more in Choosing Between Dollar-Cost And Value Averaging.)

Another technique to diminish the emotional response to market investing is to diversify a portfolio. There have been only a handful of times in history when all markets have moved in unison and diversification provided little protection. In most normal market cycles, the use of a diversification strategy provides downward protection. Diversifying a portfolio can take many forms - investing in different industries, different geographies, different types of investments and even hedging with alternative investments like real estate and private equity. There are distinctive market conditions that favor each of these subsectors of the market, so a portfolio made up of all these various types of investments should provide protection in a range of market conditions.

Conclusion
Investing without emotion is easier said than done, especially because uncertainty rules the market and the media. Evidence suggests that most investors are emotional and maximize money flows at the wrong times - a surefire way to reduce potential returns. Strategies that eliminate the emotional response to investing should produce returns that are significantly greater than those indicated by the typical investor responding to the market rather than proactively investing in the market. Dollar-cost averaging and diversification are two proven strategies within a multitude of other alternatives to reduce an investors emotional reaction to the market. (Curious about how emotions and biases affect the market? Find some useful insight in Taking A Chance On Behavioral Finance.)

Related Articles
  1. Trading Strategies

    Mastering Short-Term Trading

    The proper application of a few different tools can help a short-term trader succeed.
  2. Technical Indicators

    Four Commonly Used Indicators In Trend Trading

    No single indicator can punch a ticket to market riches, but here are four that remain popular among trend traders.
  3. Charts & Patterns

    4 Ways To Predict Market Performance

    One school of thought to predicting market performance says, “Don’t fight the tape,” meaning, don’t get in the way of market trends.
  4. Fundamental Analysis

    Will Health Care Continue to Drive IPOs in 2016?

    Learn why health care IPOs may be slowing in 2016, and how Obamacare, poor previous filings and economic factors are affecting the health care sector.
  5. Investing News

    Latest Labor Numbers: Good News for the Market?

    Some economic numbers are indicating that the labor market is outperforming the stock market. Should investors be bullish?
  6. Investing News

    Is the White House too Optimistic on the Economy?

    Are the White House's economic growth projections for 2016 and 2017 realistic or too optimistic?
  7. Products and Investments

    Cash vs. Stocks: How to Decide Which is Best

    Is it better to keep your money in cash or is a down market a good time to buy stocks at a lower cost?
  8. Economics

    Can the Market Predict a Recession?

    Is a bear market an indication that a recession is on the horizon?
  9. Mutual Funds & ETFs

    The 3 Best T. Rowe Price Funds for Value Investors in 2016

    Read analyses of the top three T. Rowe Price value funds open to new investors, and learn about their investment objectives and historical performances.
  10. Active Trading Fundamentals

    4 Stocks With Bullish Head and Shoulders Patterns for 2016 (PG, ETR)

    Discover analyses of the top four stocks with bullish head and shoulders patterns forming in 2016, and learn the prices at which they should be considered.
RELATED FAQS
  1. Why have mutual funds become so popular?

    Mutual funds have become an incredibly popular option for a wide variety of investors. This is primarily due to the automatic ... Read Full Answer >>
  2. How should young people invest in a bear market?

    When the economy enters into a period of stagnant growth, high unemployment or rising inflation, the stock prices of companies ... Read Full Answer >>
  3. How effective is creating trade entries after spotting an Exhaustion Gap pattern?

    Trading after an exhaustion gap can be a very lucrative strategy, though the volatile nature of this type of pattern means ... Read Full Answer >>
  4. What is Fibonacci retracement, and where do the ratios that are used come from?

    Fibonacci retracement is a very popular tool among technical traders and is based on the key numbers identified by mathematician ... Read Full Answer >>
  5. What is finance?

    "Finance" is a broad term that describes two related activities: the study of how money is managed and the actual process ... Read Full Answer >>
  6. What is the 'Rule of 72'?

    The 'Rule of 72' is a simplified way to determine how long an investment will take to double, given a fixed annual rate of ... Read Full Answer >>
Hot Definitions
  1. Short Selling

    Short selling is the sale of a security that is not owned by the seller, or that the seller has borrowed. Short selling is ...
  2. Harry Potter Stock Index

    A collection of stocks from companies related to the "Harry Potter" series franchise. Created by StockPickr, this index seeks ...
  3. Liquidation Margin

    Liquidation margin refers to the value of all of the equity positions in a margin account. If an investor or trader holds ...
  4. Black Swan

    An event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and that would be extremely difficult ...
  5. Inverted Yield Curve

    An interest rate environment in which long-term debt instruments have a lower yield than short-term debt instruments of the ...
  6. Socially Responsible Investment - SRI

    An investment that is considered socially responsible because of the nature of the business the company conducts. Common ...
Trading Center