I’ll start this week with an admission: I’m a fan of behavioral finance. There is something enormously appealing in the idea that irrational decisions power the economy more than the mathematical precision of “Economic Man” that I studied as an economics undergrad.
I think there are two reasons for this appeal. It’s partly the morbid fun of realizing that an entire academic discipline got off track (and because it allowed math to push aside flawed human nature, no less). And partly because it gives my personal history of irrational decisions a fig leaf of relevance.
But behavioral finance often gets treated as an ivory-tower issue, even by the inhabitants of the tower. True, there are a handful of devotees in business who are trying to incorporate this thinking into their workaday life. But many others, as I wrote a few months ago, still consider it a parlor game. Interesting, and a sharp indictment on the efficient market hypothesis, but just not applicable in the “real world.” And that’s especially true in the C-suite, where the soft idea of behavior (and the odd Nobel Prize in Economics) takes a back seat to the hard numbers of earnings and market share.
But for all you naysayers who think that the whole idea is too soft to be useful at work, may I present Dr. Richard Peterson. As managing partner of Los Angeles-based MarketPsych, he is working to glean concrete, quantifiable results from behavioral finance.
How, you ask? Several ways. Most interestingly, he has started a hedge fund using the concepts of behavioral finance. But he isn’t looking for discrepancies in a stock’s price and its real value. Instead, he attempts to take advantage of overreaction and underreaction of other investors.
And to do that, MarketPsych has developed its own software that scans thousands of news articles, earnings call transcripts, and social media postings every day to get a feel for sentiment. When there is a shift in tone from cautious to optimistic, for example, he buys with the assumption that others are going to overreact and push the value of the stock even higher. And vice versa, if the sentiment is negative, he’ll short a stock.
With this “linguistic analysis,” as he calls it, he is not worried that the media, or message boards, will make mountains out of molehills. In fact, a little linguistic exuberance even helps his efforts. If ambitious copy editors use the words “plummet” and “soar” in headlines because they sound better than “rise” or “fall,” that editorial poetry can help fuel investors’ irrational behavior.
The fund has been around for just two years, so it’s not on any of the big platforms yet. (It was launched in September 2008, about two weeks before the bottom fell out of the market). It’s still very small, with about $1 million in assets but he’s hoping over time it will become a much bigger player in the market.
MarketPsych also has a series of seminars and coaching sessions for advisors and firms, all with the goal of using behavioral finance to help advisors and firms improve performance. He’s speaking to 75 advisors from one of the regionals next week on “strategic emotional communication.” And the coaching focuses on individual motivation, goal setting and identifying the aspects of your job that you can control.
This all may seem like a major task that Peterson has taken on. He’s certainly been training for it for a long time. After an undergraduate degree in engineering, he decided to go to medical school—his degree is in psychiatry—but he was always more interested in the markets than in practicing medicine. His goal in studying psychiatry was to better understand the brain’s activity when making investment decisions. His ultimate objective was to find the shortcomings of Mill’s Economic Man, and then exploit them in the markets.
If he’s successful, and is able to quantify the concepts from behavioral finance and show concrete benefits, maybe then the nattering naysayers in the business world will take notice.