frozen by the screen: a portfolio manager’s ailment

frozen by the screen

Every seasoned professional investor I’ve sat down and compared notes about the profession with has experienced this phenomenon.  Usually it happens when the market is declining and you’re underperforming–sometimes badly.  You turn on your computer or your trading machine to see what prices are doing.  Your stocks are doing poorly again.  But instead of either turning to another page or going back to work, you sit and watch the flow of trading in your stocks and worry.  You may be mesmerized or horrified.  You’re using up a lot of emotional energy.  You know this isn’t helpful, but you just sit and watch–and maybe perspire heavily.  You can’t tear your eyes away from the screen.

This isn’t good.  For one thing, you’re not doing anything productive.  You’re not thinking about how you can tweak your holdings to achieve even higher levels of outperformance.  In a deeper sense, though, this behavior is a sign that you’re either about to lose your confidence or have lost it already.  You’re focusing on failure, not success.

for professionals

This happens to every professional now and again.  It’s the equivalent of a hitter going up to the plate worrying about being hit by a hundred mile an hour fastball and breaking his ribs, rather than visualizing how he’s going to hit a double off an accomplished pitcher.  You’re setting yourself up for failure.And the cold reality is that if you can’t get into a positive frame of mind, then you may not be cut out for this line of work.

For a portfolio manager, there are several obvious steps to take to restore a positive mood:

1.  Turn off the price screen and don’t turn it back on.

2.  Take out your analysis of the stocks you hold that are performing the worst, rethink and rework your assumptions, and come to some conclusion.  The result will probably be that you believe the stock is as cheap as you thought.  Even if you spot some fatal flaw, you’ll have some reason other than fear for making a change.

3.  Rethink your portfolio structure and whether it’s still appropriate.

4.  Look for depressed stocks that you always wanted to own but thought they were too expensive.  Consider whether a market downdraft has made them more attractive.

5.  Look for long-term weak performers in your present portfolio (you know they must be there, because everyone has them).   They’re probably not going down much (because they never went up).  Think about using them as a source of funds for any new additions.

6.  You can always take some risk out of the portfolio by making it look more like the index.  In my case, however, every time I’d done this it’s been a mistake.

7.  If you’re going to do something stupid, like selling a perfectly good stock while its price is down, do it in a very small amount.

8.  If nothing else works, go to the gym  …or read a book.  Just don’t turn the screen back on.

Of course, there’s an underlying assumption I’m making–that what’s going on is a moment of mental weakness, a temporary loss of focus.  It’s also at least possible that your unconscious is telling you that you have deep fundamental flaws in your portfolio that you need to fix as fast as possible.  But if you know yourself well enough psychologically, you should be able to tell the difference.

for regular people investing their own money

Funnily enough, these are much harder cases to diagnose.  Good professional investors are highly trained in what is an often counter-intuitive way of thinking about the world.  So the pitfalls they encounter are usually well understood, because they’re the ones every other manager has encountered as he tries to master his craft.

For regular investors experiencing angst at declines in their holdings, I’d have three basic questions:

1.  Do you know how the companies whose stocks you hold earn their money?  Have you read quarterly/annual reports and 10Q/10K filings?  Have you formed an expectation about potential returns for each holding?  If you haven’t, you’re not investing, you’re buying lottery tickets.

2. Do you have an overall financial planning strategy?  Is the risk in the stocks you hold appropriate for your economic circumstances?

3.  Are you willing to devote the time needed to develop investing skills, or would you be better off finding a financial planner to help?  (Finding a competent adviser is a whole other can of worms, however.)

why am I writing this today?

My personal stock portfolio had been holding up relatively well during the correction–until yesterday.  I did end the day with two green lights on the screen, DKS (who knows why) and 1128:hk, where the market was closed while New York was falling sharply.  But my other stocks really got clunked.  That’s just life.   But I noticed that I was starting to stare at my screen in an unhealthy fashion.  So I ran for about a half-hour and read a couple of chapters in a book about web design. 

For what it’s worth, my take on the sharp reversal in my portfolio’s relative fortune signals that the correction has entered a new phase.  The tendency in downdrafts in the market is for investors to begin by selling stocks they don’t care much about.  As the correction progresses, the selling reaches closer and closer to what people consider their crown jewels.  If the decline ends in a mini-panic, even parts of core holdings get shown to the door.  I’m not saying this last happened yesterday, but I do think the correction took another step closer to completion.

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