Is greed feeding the macro environment?
As society was exhaling from the post-war world of 1946, Arthur Lefford from New York University’s Department of Psychology took particular interest in people’s decision-making ability, especially as many generations (if they were so lucky) had just survived several globally disruptive periods.
The new world presented choices and options that could lead to solutions to the social and economic problems that were now presented before them. This evolving case study provided Lefford with the platform to challenge whether people expressed the (in)ability to act based on objectivity and rationality.
Unsurprising to many of us in 2021, the results of the study found that people’s agreeability to a message is often strongly correlated with their perception of the choice being more logical or rational. The inverse also applies; when there is disagreement with a message, people often consider this to be emotional. Decades later as the natural progression of this field of study cascaded into the world of finance, behavioural finance emerged and sought to study the effect of psychological factors on the economic decision-making process.
The focus of behavioural finance is the idea that investors are limited in their ability to make rational economic decisions, whether that is influenced by their own biases, by a lack of self-control or resources (such as time), by peer pressure (for example, herd mentality) or a number of other social, cultural and external factors.
If studied and watched closely, this irrationality can begin to reveal some patterns of behaviour and can lead to opportunities. The opposing camp to behavioural finance, however, is the Efficient Market Hypothesis.
The Efficient Market Hypothesis asserts that investors are rational, fully-informed, and that (stock) prices reflect all available information at any given time and therefore always trade at their fair value. Essentially making the ability to generate an excess return impossible.
From our perch, it currently appears that the broader financial system may be playing out a behavioural finance tragic’s greatest fantasy. Alongside the apparent equity market exuberance and interest in speculative assets, it seems experts and arm-chair journalists are also attempting to forecast when the RBA interest rates will begin to rise. While these pre-emptive calls make for fascinating reading, they can feed into the broader market’s fear and greed complex.
Simply, when interest rates are rising (or are lifted ahead of schedule), people are fearful they won’t be able to pay their (increased) mortgage repayment and when they are declining (or are cut AHEAD of market consensus), greed dominates as money is perceivably cheap(er).
From a business perspective, when interest rates rise, it tends to have a detractive effect overall as debt becomes more expensive (increasing the cost of starting new projects, assuming they are partially debt-funded), consumer spending rates generally reduce, and cash leaves the system to be channelled elsewhere (for example, the household mortgage). The converse also remains true, should interest rates be lifted at a point which is BEHIND consensus, this may allow markets to continue climbing further over the near term.
But if interest rates rise ahead of schedule and shock the market into price recalibration to reflect this new environment, one would expect fear and by that virtue, volatility to accompany irrationality as it replaces the current market exuberance. Perhaps this is what pundits and experts alike are trying to time or forecast. Timed correctly, one can quickly adjust a portfolio on a value vs growth or technical vs fundamental basis with the intent to be in the more favoured style. We however prefer not to market time or fluctuate between styles to try and match the macro environment. Conviction (or lack thereof) to an investment strategy and ethos can often be the difference between consistent and inconsistent returns.
It appears quite likely that at some point in the medium term the RBA will lift interest rates; from the lens of our investment strategy, we believe that timing this movement is largely an exercise in futility. For as long as irrational economic decision-making continues, one can expect volatility and with it, market opportunities for those who look.
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As co-founder and Director of Spatium Capital, Jesse is fascinated by the mental shortcuts that drive people to solve problems and make decisions, which supported the launch of the Firm. As Director, Jesse’s responsibilities are predominantly...