Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Emotional Investor

One of the characteristics Warren Buffett looks for in managers of the companies he owns (read: The Warren Buffet Way by Rob Hagstrom) is rationality. In essence, he's looking for managers that will allocate corporate funds to areas that make the most economic sense. An emotional approach to capital allocation would undoubtedly lead to decisions that would decrease shareholder wealth.

I find that very few financial decisions we make for ourselves are rational. Just the opposite in fact. Almost all of our decisions, especially as they relate to our personal finances, have some emotional component. For example, I'm acquainted with a few single 30-somethings that have recently become homeowners. In every case (except for one), these individuals moved out of a small and inexpensive apartment into a much larger and expensive home. A couple were actually moving out of a rent free situation (they were living with mom). Along the line, each one of them has said to me in one way or another, that they thought they were making a good economic decision. In other words what they were saying is that they thought they were being rational and that they'd be making themselves wealthier by buying a home.

It makes me giggle a little that any of them would actually say that they'd be economically better off. I mean, how much better off can you be economically going from paying next to nothing (small apt/living with mom) to paying a substantial something (buying an expensive home in a historically inflated real estate market). These folks are clearly making emotional economic decisions although they'd like to think otherwise. In no way can a situation in which substantial money is spent be better than a situation in which no money is spent. The only explanation is that judgment was clouded by emotion.

But I'll give these individuals the benefit of the doubt as we all have heard time and time again that homeownership is a sure way to wealth. We've heard it so much that we'll even abide by it when the choice of homeownership is the much more expensive choice for us. We dread doing the wrong things with our money (at least some of us). Our emotions take over and suspend our rational thought. Without rational thought, we wind up making the wrong decisions.

Even in situations when we know better, emotions play a big part in our decisions. As some of you (I'm positive not all of you) may be aware paying down a low interest rate mortgage early is not the best financial decision one can make. One would be far better off putting those extra mortgage payments to work in the stock market (or your own business) where one would probably receive a much higher rate of return. But clearly, this is not simply a financial decision. Emotions play a huge part in personal finance and carrying a mortgage is no exception.

I have a friend and with his and his wife's combined incomes, they will be able to pay off his existing mortgage in a very short time. And they will probably go ahead and do just that. My friend also understands that he'll be better off financially if he never accelerated his payments. When I asked him why he planned on paying the mortgage off early knowing what he knows he simply stated, "Cause debt don't feel good."

"Debt don't feel good" is not rational. It's emotional. In Thomas Stanley's book The Millionaire Mind, he profiled several millionaires and their treatment of their homes and mortgages. It was clear that most millionaires are "less" emotional when approaching their own personal finances. Which is why according to Stanley most millionaires (not all) carry mortgages to full term. When millionaires approach a financial decision, they choose the alternative that puts the odds of being wealthier in their favor. This is why they save instead of spend, buy stocks more than bonds (or real estate for that matter), lead low consumption lifestyles instead of ostentatious spend-thrift lifestyles, run their own business instead of working for "the man". I think most millionaires exhibit some form of economic rationality. Paying down a mortgage early or buying an expensive house isn't economically rational. But like my friend says, debt just don't feel good and neither does living with your mama. And maybe that's more important but it won't help your wallet.


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