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Improved Investment Decisions by Tuning Out the Noise

By July 15, 2019Early to Mid-Career

Amid tariff wars and temporary truces, Brexit bewilderment and historic Hong Kong rallies, the global thermometer isn’t the only gauge that may leave you and your investment temperament reeling between cooling chills and hot thrills this summer.

Let’s take a refreshing journey back to May 2018, when the CFA Institute hosted its 71st Annual Conference in (of all places) Hong Kong. It’s also where Nobel Laureate and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman presented how to improve on decisions by tuning out the “noise.”

You probably already agree it makes sense to ignore noisy distractions in pursuit of your financial goals. But how do you know what is noise and what is substance?

Kahneman and his research partners offer us important insights on this front. In an October 2016 Harvard Business Review article, they define noise as how widely different people’s interpretations of the exact same information tends to vary. When judgments based on the same data vary by a lot, they’re considered noisy … because how do you know who’s right?

For example, as reported in the HBR article, Kahneman and colleagues measured the noise levels at two financial service organizations by presenting identical case studies to multiple participants at each firm. The firms’ executives predicted judgments might vary 5%–10% of the time. Instead, on average, different professionals’ judgments varied between 48%60% of the time.

This outcome is not exclusive to financial types. Kahneman found similar results across doctors, judges, loan officers, and other professionals. Bottom line, even educated judgments can be very “noisy,” and that’s before we even consider the din of discussion we’re subjected to daily from a never-ending global feed of often insignificant information.

As Kahneman describes, “The problem is that humans are unreliable decision makers; their judgments are strongly influenced by irrelevant factors, such as their current mood, the time since their last meal, and the weather. … Whenever there is judgment there is noise and probably a lot more than you think.”

Let’s bring this back to investing. Does this mean everything we hear is noise, and nobody knows what’s going on? In terms of breaking news, it probably does. That’s why it’s all the more important to heed the tips Kahneman shared with CFA conference attendees:

  1. Be disciplined. Kahneman refers to using algorithms, or evidence-based rules, for quieter, more consistent outcomes. Following such rules may not deliver as hoped for every time, but it should outperform excessive judgments (even from the “experts”).
  2. Think big-picture. Kahneman suggests: “See the decision as a member of a class of decisions that you’ll probably have to take.” This includes avoiding regret over past outcomes as “probably the greatest enemy of good decision making in personal finance.”
  3. Be open to noise-dampening advice. Kahneman also encourages us to seek advice that helps tune out rather than amplify judgmental noise.

If you’re feeling the heat from this summer’s unfolding news, we hope you’ll be in touch with your questions or concerns. We’ll help you separate the sound from the substance.