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Dr. Richard H. Thaler and Behavioral Economics

A behavioral scientist 2017 

By Rick Kahler MS CFP®

Human beings make most of our decisions—including financial ones—emotionally, not logically. Unfortunately, too much of the time, our emotions lead us into financial choices that aren’t good for our financial well-being. This is hardly news to financial planners or financial therapists. Nor is it a surprise to any parent who has ever struggled to teach kids how to manage money wisely.

Economic Model Assumptions

Yet many of the economic models and theories related to investing are based on assumptions that, when it comes to money, people act rationally and in their own best interests. There’s a wide gulf between the way economists assume people behave around money and the way people actually make money choices. This doesn’t encourage financial advisors to rely on what economists say about financial patterns, trends, and what to expect from markets or consumers.

2017 Nobel Prize in Economics

It’s significant, then, that the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics went to Dr. Richard H. Thaler, professor of behavioral science and economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Dr. Thaler’s work has focused on the differences between logical economic assumptions and real-world human behavior. His research not only demonstrates that people behave emotionally when it comes to money; it also shows that in many ways our irrational economic behavior is predictable.

This predictability can help advisors and organizations find ways to encourage people to make financial decisions in their own better interest. The book Nudge, by Dr. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, describes some of those methods.

Example:

One example is making participation the default option for company retirement programs like 401(k)’s. Employees are free to opt out, of course, but they need to actively choose to do so.

A second example is the “Save More Tomorrow” plan, which offers employees the option of automatically increasing their savings whenever they receive raises in the future.

Both of these examples rely on a predictable behavior—human inertia. Most of us tend to postpone, ignore, or forget to take action even when that action would be good for us. So if a system is set up so not taking action leaves us with the choice that serves us better, we are “nudged” toward helping ourselves toward a healthier financial future.

Integration

As one of the pioneers in integrating the emotional aspect of money behavior into the practice of financial planning, I’ve long since come to understand that managing money is about much more than numbers. The world of investing may seem to be cold and calculating, but it’s actually driven by emotions. I’m familiar with the work of researchers who have demonstrated that some 90% of all financial decisions are made emotionally rather than logically.

I was pleased in 2002 when one of those researchers, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, won the Nobel prize in economics for his studies of human behavioral biases and systematic irrational behaviors. (That research was done jointly with psychologist Amos Tversky, who died in 1996.)

I’m even more pleased to see the economics Nobel prize go to a behavioral researcher for the second time. Maybe the realm of economics is beginning to integrate the untidy realities of human emotions into its theories. Eventually, this might lead to new economic models that take into account the emotions that shape people’s money decisions and the fact that money is one of the most emotionally charged aspects of our lives.

Assessment

Perhaps economists are beginning to appreciate the truth of the statement Dr. Thaler made at a news conference after his prize was announced. “In order to do good economics, you have to keep in mind that people are human.”

Conclusion

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Rationality and Emotions in Financial Decisions [Video]

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Rationality and Emotions in Financial Decisions

By Professor Eyal Winter [SFI Seminars]

Conclusion

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Our Brain, Computer Operating Systems and Financial Decision Making

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Our default brain operating system is programmed to make poor financial decisions?

Rick Kahler MS CFPBy Rick Kahler MS CFP® http://www.KahlerFinancial.com

If you’ve ever struggled to learn new software or unravel a computer problem, you know that part of the frustration of dealing with technology is its logic. Computers respond according to their default operating systems. If we want them to do something different, they need to be reprogrammed.

In the same way, the default operating systems of our brains are actually programmed to make poor financial decisions. This is normal. Making good financial decisions actually takes a deliberate reprogramming of your internal operating system. Here is why.

Our brains are divided into three sections: the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, and the prefrontal cortex.

The reptilian brain is the oldest, most primitive part. In a talk at the Financial Therapy Association’s annual conference in July 2015 in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico, Dr. Ted Klontz explained that the reptilian brain continually scans for threats. It is waiting for death to come walking through the doorway, so it lives in anxiety. Since anything positive is not a threat, it’s oblivious to the positive. It also doesn’t understand the concept of the future, but lives only in this moment.

Left to its own programming, then, of course the reptilian brain might have a problem making monthly contributions to a retirement account. Saving for the future isn’t a concept it even understands. Further, it sees taking money out of the checkbook as a threat because that leaves fewer resources to battle death when it comes through the doorway. Making things even worse, the reptilian brain is nearly impossible to change. The best most of us can do is manage it.

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Brain view

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This brings us to the mammalian brain, whose only job is to manage the anxiety of the reptilian brain. It does so in three ways:

  1. Remove the threat (fight),
  2. Run away from the threat (flight),
  3. Get small and disappear to hide from the threat (freeze).

Most of us favor one of these three responses to threats, and according to Dr. Klontz we select our preferred response by the age of six. When the mammalian brain responds, it processes exponentially faster than the thinking part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex. Because of the ease with which the mammalian brain responds to threats, 90% of all decisions—including financial ones—are made here.

With the mammalian brain managing the anxiety of the reptilian brain, we have a more sophisticated response to our potential retirement plan contribution. Some of us will verbally fight and defeat any messenger (article, employer, financial advisor, spouse) that suggests we drain our current resources to send money into a black hole. Others will simply flee the messenger by diverting our attention to the Monday night football game or any task at hand. A portion of us will just freeze into a glassy-eyed stare. Nobody is home.

That leaves us with our only hope, the understanding and thinking part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. This part of our brain doesn’t fully come on line until the mid-twenties. It functions as the parent of the other two brains, but unfortunately it processes information very slowly and with great effort.

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brain

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More:

Assessment

Fortunately, this is the brain that is easiest to change. By training it to become aware when the lower parts of the brain are about to make a hair-trigger decision, we can stop the ensuing action long enough to add logic as well as emotion to the process.

More:

Reprogramming the brain takes time, practice, and using resources like education, mentors, advisors, and counseling. Eventually, wise financial choices like saving for retirement can become the new default programming, even in spite of the reptilian brain.

Conclusion

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Do RetroSpective Thoughts on Apple Inc Hint of the ProSpective Future after the “Crash” Today?

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PART I.

Understanding Apple Requires an Analysis of Fundamentals and Psychology

vitalyBy Vitaliy Katsenelson CFA

So many articles have been written recently about Apple — defending it or explaining why this glorious fruit will turn into a shriveling pumpkin by midnight (with Samsung’s help) — that I really haven’t felt the need to contribute to the unending debate.

But, when Apple’s stock crashed to $450 back in January 2013, we bought a little for our clients. After receiving an outraged e-mail from one of them calling the purchase “irresponsible” and proclaiming that everyone (including his neighbor) knows that Apple is going down to $300, I decided it was time to join the discourse. Clients rarely (almost never) contact us about stocks we own in their accounts. More important, this is far from the most “radioactive” stock we own or have owned.

So, here is a column on Apple, I wrote back then.  I have no intention of defending or prosecuting the company, but I would like to share some thoughts about it that many pundits have either overlooked or ignored.

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Logo of Apple Inc. to be used on a custom landing page/brand page about Apple products on the website of Shopping.com.

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The Psychlogy

What makes Apple stock difficult to own is psychology. The company’s success since 2000 is a black swan. We tend to think of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s black swans as significant random negative events, but Apple is a positive one. When co-founder Steve Jobs came back to the company in the late ’90s, Apple was about to take its last breath. Jobs pulled off a miracle. He revived the company’s computer product line, making Macs exciting again, and then came out with three revolutionary “i” products in a row: the iPod, iPhone and iPad. You could argue that the success of each “i” product in itself was a black swan, exceeding all rational expectations and revolutionizing, transforming and in some cases creating new categories of merchandise that had never existed before.

Revenue and Market Capitalization

Apple’s revenue and market capitalization deservedly surpassed those of almighty Microsoft Corp. — the hairy monster with stinky breath that performed CPR on dying Apple in the late ’90s by injecting liquidity into the company by buying its preferred stock. We have a hard time processing this highly improbable success and an even harder time imagining that there is another black swan about to take flight from the Apple labs, especially with no Steve Jobs around to sit on the egg.

Black swans come out of nowhere, unannounced, but their impact may be long-lasting. The wildly successful “i” gadgets dug a formidable moat around Apple. They created the most valuable and still most inspirational brand in the world, funded an enormous research and development effort, enabled huge buying power (Apple locks up supply and pays much lower prices than many of its competitors for parts), filled out a mature product ecosystem and stuffed Apple’s debt-free balance sheet with $137 billion — half the market capitalization of Microsoft. The moat is wide, deep and unlikely to be breached any time soon.

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Ex-Cathedra black swan

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High Price

One reason the psychology of owning Apple stock is so difficult: it’s high price. (Note: I am talking not about its valuation but purely about its price.) Apple has had only one stock split since the late ’90s, when it was trading in double digits, and it now changes hands at about $450 (down from $700 just a few months ago). Stock splits create zero economic value in the long run — absolutely none. Apple could split its stock ten to one and you’d have ten $45 shares, and nothing about the company or its business would change. But, I’d argue that a 3 percent “slide” of $1.35 would grab fewer headlines than a $13.50 “drop” — there is a media magnification factor that is hard to ignore.

Hardware versus Software

Is Apple a hardware or a software company? This is a very important question because Apple’s net margins of 25 percent are dangerously higher than those of Microsoft, a software monopoly that, with the minor exception of the Xbox and its new venture into tablets, sells only software, which has a 100 percent incremental margin.

Apple is either a smart hardware company or a software maker dressed in hardware company clothes. Take a look at the PC businesses of traditional “dumb” hardware companies like Dell and Hewlett-Packard Co. (I am not insulting these companies, I am just highlighting their lack of PC-directed R&D.) They buy hard drives from Western Digital Corp., graphic cards from Nvidia Corp., processors from Intel Corp. and an operating system from Microsoft, then they have contract manufacturers put together these parts in Asia and ship PCs all over the world. Dell and HP engineers design the PCs but contribute minimal R&D to their boxes; most of the R&D is done by the suppliers. Dell and HP are really asset-lite marketing and logistics companies — this explains their razor-thin margins. (Side note: Because of a lack of fixed costs, Dell and HP can remain profitable despite the ongoing decline in PC sales.)

Same Surface

On the surface, Apple’s personal computer business is not that much different from Dell’s or HP’s: It uses the same highly commoditized hardware and it also outsources manufacturing, but Apple spends much more on the R&D of its own operating system and creates distinctive, innovative products. Apple gets to keep a slice of revenue that would otherwise go to Microsoft for the operating system. Also, Apple is able to charge a premium (usually a few hundred dollars per PC) for the aesthetic appeal and perceived ease of use of its products.

However, when it comes to the “i” devices, Apple is a much smarter hardware company; its value added goes further than just basic design and software. Though there is a lot of commoditized hardware that goes into an iPhone or iPad, Apple’s skill at fitting an ever-growing number of components into ever-shrinking devices constantly increases. Add world-class touch and feel, superior battery life and durability, and you have a package that turns what would otherwise be commodity items into highly differentiated, and undeniably sexy, products. Apple has even gone a step further and is designing its own microprocessors.

But — and this is a very important “but” — as phones and tablets mature, processor speed, battery life and weight will tend to become uniform across all devices. It is arguable that the competition has already caught up with Apple in the hardware race. As the hardware premium goes away, there will be only two premiums left: Apple’s brand and its ecosystem. (I will go into detail about the “i” ecosystem and what it means for Apple’s margins and profitability in my second essay posted below).

Note that I did not mention the software premium. Unlike Microsoft, which charges for the Windows operating system installed on PCs, Google gives away Android to anyone who dares to make a phone or a tablet. Unless Apple can maintain the operating system lead against Android, that premium will go away.

Assessment

Recently, I spent a few days playing with Nexus 7, Google’s Android-powered 7-inch tablet, which retails for $200 ($130 cheaper than Apple’s iPad mini). Nexus 7 is a good product, but I kept remembering that humans and monkeys share 98 percent of their DNA, and the Android operating system is missing the 2 percent that makes Apple iOS so special.

*** 

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PART II.

How Much Would You Pay for the Apple Ecosystem?

Apple’s ecosystem is an important and durable competitive advantage; it creates a tangible switching cost (or, an inconvenience) after Apple has locked you into the i-ecosystem. It takes time to build an ecosystem that consists of speakers and accessories that will connect only via Apple systems: Apple TV, which easily recreates an iPhone or iPad screen on a TV set; the music collection on iTunes (competition from Spotify and Google Play lessens this advantage); a multitude of great apps (in all honesty, gaming apps have a half-life of only a few weeks, but productivity apps and my $60 TomTom GPS have a much longer half-life); and, last, the underrated Photo Stream, a feature in iOS 6 that allows you to share photos with your close friends and relatives with incredible ease. My family and friends share pictures from our daily lives (kids growing up, ski trips, get-togethers), but that, of course, only works when we’re all on Apple products. (This is why Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion. Photo Stream is a real competitive threat to Facebook, especially if you want to share pictures with a limited group of close friends.)

The i-ecosystem makes switching from the iPhone to a competitor’s device an unpleasant undertaking, something you won’t do unless you are really significantly dissatisfied with your i-device (or you are simply very bored). How much extra are you willing to pay for your Apple goodies? Brand is more than just prestige; it is the amalgamation of intangible things like perceptions and tangible things like getting incredible phone and e-mail customer service (I’ve been blown away by how great it is!) or having your problems resolved by a genius at the Apple store.

Of course, as the phone and tablet categories mature, Apple’s hardware premium will deflate and its margins will decline. The only question is, by how much?

Let me try to answer

From 2003 to 2012, Apple’s net margins rose from 1.1 percent to 25 percent. In 2003 they were too low; today they are too high. Let’s look at why the margins went up. Gross margins increased from 27.5 percent to 44 percent: Apple is making 16.5 cents more for every dollar of product sold today than it did in 2001. Looking back at Nokia Corp. in its heyday, in 2003 the Finnish cell phone maker was able to command a 41.5 percent margin, which has gradually drifted down to 28 percent.

Today, Nokia is Microsoft’s bitch, completely dependent on the success of the Windows operating system, which is far from certain. Nokia is a sorry shell of what used to be a great company, while Apple, despite its universal hatred by growth managers, is still, well, Apple. Its gross margins will decline, but they won’t approach those of 2003 or Nokia’s current level.

For Apple to conquer emerging markets and keep what it has already won there, it will need to lower prices. The company is not doing horribly in China — its sales are running at $25 billion a year and were up 67 percent in the past quarter.

However, a significant number of the iPhones sold in China (Apple doesn’t disclose the figure) are not $650 iPhone 5’s but the cheaper 4 and 4s models. (Also, on a recent conference call, Verizon Communications mentioned that half of the iPhones it has sold were the 4 and 4s models.) Apple’s price premium over its Android brethren is not as high as everyone thinks.

What is truly astonishing is that Apple’s spending on R&D and selling, general and administrative (SG&A) expenses has fallen from 7.6 percent and 19.5 percent, respectively, in 2003 to a meager 2.2 percent and 6.4 percent today. R&D and SG&A expenses actually increased almost eightfold, but they didn’t grow nearly as fast as sales. Apple spends $3.4 billion on R&D today, compared with $471 million in 2001. This is operational leverage at its best. As long as Apple can grow sales, and R&D and SG&A increase at the same rate as sales or slower, Apple should keep its 18.5 percentage points gain in net margins through operational leverage.

***

***

Growth of sales is an assumption in itself. Apple’s annual sales are approaching $180 billion, and it is only a question of when they will run into the wall of large numbers. At this point, 20 percent-a-year growth means Apple has to sell as many i-thingies as it sold last year plus an additional $36 billion worth. Of course, this argument could have been made $100 billion ago, and the company did report 18 percent revenue growth for the past quarter, but Apple is in the last few innings of this high-growth game; otherwise its sales will exceed the GDP of some large European countries.

If you treat Apple as a pure hardware company, you’ll miss a very important element of its business model: recurrence of revenues through planned obsolescence. Apple releases a new device and a new operating system version every year. Its operating system only supports the past three or four generations of devices and limits functionality on some older devices. If you own an iPhone 3G, iOS 6 will not run on it, and thus a lot of apps will not work on it, so you will most likely be buying a new iPhone soon. In addition — and not unlike in the PC world — newer software usually requires more powerful hardware; the new software just doesn’t run fast enough on old phones. My son got a hand-me-down iPhone 3G but gave it to his cousin a few days later — it could barely run the new software.

As I wrote above, Apple’s success over the past decade is a black swan, an improbable but significant event, thanks in large part to the genius of Steve Jobs. Today investors are worried because Jobs is not there to create another revolutionary product, and they are right to be concerned. Jobs was more important to Apple’s success than Warren Buffett is to Berkshire Hathaway’s today. (Berkshire doesn’t need to innovate; it is a collection of dozens of autonomous companies run by competent managers.) Apple will be dead without continued innovation.

Jobs was the ultimate benevolent dictator, and he was the definition of a micro-manager. In his book Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson describes how Jobs picked shades of white for Apple Store bathroom tiles and worked on the design of the iPhone box. He had to sign off on every product Apple made, down to and including the iPhone charger. His employees feared, loved and worshiped him, and they followed him into the fire. Jobs could change the direction of the company on a dime — that was what it took to deliver black i-swans. Jobs is gone, so the probability of another product achieving the success of the iPhone or iPad has declined exponentially.

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Steve Jobs RIP

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What is really amazing about Apple is how underwhelming its valuation is today — it doesn’t require new black swans.

In an analysis we tried very hard to kill the company. We tanked its gross margins to a Nokia-like 28 percent and still got $30 of earnings per share (the Street’s estimate for 2013 is $45), which puts its valuation, excluding $145 a share in cash, at 10 times earnings. We killed its sales growth to 2 percent a year for ten years, discounted its cash flows and still got a $500 stock.

There is a lot of value in Apple’s enormous ability to generate cash. The company is sitting on an ever-growing pile of it — $137 billion, about one third of its market cap. Over the past 12 months, despite spending $10 billion on capital expenditures, Apple still generated $46 billion of free cash flows. If it continues to generate free cash flows at a similar rate (I am assuming no growth), by the end of 2015 it will have stockpiled $300 of cash per share. At today’s price [2013] it will be commanding a price-earnings ratio (if you exclude cash) of 4.

Of course, the market is not giving Apple credit for its cash, but I think the market is wrong. Unlike Microsoft, which does something dumber than dumb with its cash every other year, Apple has a pristine capital allocation track record. It has not made any foolish acquisitions — or, indeed, any acquisitions of size. Other than buying an Eastern European country and renaming it i-Country, Apple will not be able to acquire a technologically related company of size, nor will it want or need to. The cash it accumulates will end up in shareholders’ hands, either through dividends or share buybacks.

What is Apple worth?

After the financial acrobatics I’ve done trying to murder the valuation of Apple, it is easier to say that it is worth more than $450 than to pinpoint a price target. When I use a significantly decelerating sales growth rate and normalize margins (reducing them, but not as low as Nokia’s current margins), I get a price of about $600 to $800 a share.

Growth managers don’t want Apple to pay a large dividend, as though that would somehow transform this growing teenager into a mature adult. But I have news for them: Apple already is a mature adult. Second, when your return on capital is pushing infinity (as Apple’s is), you don’t need to retain much cash to grow. Two thirds of Apple’s cash is offshore, but that doesn’t make it worthless; it just makes it worth less — only $65 billion, maybe, not $97 billion, once the company pays its tax bill to Uncle Sam.

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ImageProxy

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Assessment

In the short term none of the things I am writing about here will matter. Remember, “Everyone knows Apple is going to $300,” as a client recently e-mailed me, as everyone knew it was going to a $1,000 a few months ago when Apple’s stock was trading at $700. The company’s stock will trade on emotion, fundamentals will not matter, and growth managers will likely rotate out of Apple, because once the stock declined from $700 to $450, the label on it changed from “growth” to “value.”

But ultimately, fundamentals will prevail. Like the laws of physics, they can only be suspended for so long. And so, do these retrospective thoughts on Apple hint of future prospects?

More: Should You Buy Apple Stock Ahead of Its September Event

ABOUT

Vitaliy N. Katsenelson CFA is Chief Investment Officer at Investment Management Associates in Denver, Colo. He is the author of Active Value Investing (Wiley 2007) and The Little Book of Sideways Markets (Wiley, 2010).  His books were translated into eight languages.  Forbes Magazine called him “The new Benjamin Graham”.  

Conclusion

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A Brief Historical Review of Behavioral Finance and Economics

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James O. Prochaska PhD, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Cancer Prevention Research Center at the University of Rhode Island, developed the Trans-Theoretic Model of Behavior Change [TTM] which has been evolving since in 1977. Nominated as one of the five most influential authors in Psychology, by the Institute for Scientific Information and the American Psychological Society, Dr. Prochaska is author of more than 300 papers on behavior change for health promotion and disease prevention.

TTM Stages of Change

In his Trans-Theoretical Model, behavior change is a “process involving progress through a series of these stages:

  • Pre-Contemplation (Not Ready) – “People are not intending to take action in the foreseeable future, and can be unaware that their behavior is problematic”
  • Contemplation (Getting Ready) – “People are beginning to recognize that their behavior is problematic, and start to look at the pros and cons of their continued actions”
  • Preparation (Ready) – “People are intending to take action in the immediate future, and may begin taking small steps toward behavior change”
  • Action – “People have made specific overt modifications in changing their problem behavior or in acquiring new healthy behaviors”
  • Maintenance – “People have been able to sustain action for a while and are working to prevent relapse”
  • Termination – “Individuals have zero temptation and they are sure they will not return to their old unhealthy habit as a way of coping”

Relapse

In addition, researchers conceptualized “relapse” (recycling) which is not a stage in itself but rather the “return from Action or Maintenance to an earlier stage.” In medical care, these stages of behavior change have applicability to anti-hypertension and lipid lowering medication use, as well as depression prevention, weight control and smoking cessation.

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Psychology

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Uniting Psychology and Financial Behavior

More recently, validating the emerging alliance between psychology (human behavior) and finance (economics) are two Americans who won the Royal Swedish Academy of Science’s 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science. Their research was nothing short of an explanation for the idiosyncrasies incumbent in human financial decision-making outcomes.

Enter Kahneman and Smith

Daniel Kahneman, PhD, professor of psychology at Princeton University, and Vernon L. Smith, PhD, professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., shared the prize for work that provided insight on everything from stock market bubbles, to regulating utilities, and countless other economic activities. In several cases, the winners tried to explain apparent financial paradoxes.

For example, Professor Kahneman made the economically puzzling discovery that most of his subjects would make a 20-minute trip to buy a calculator for $10 instead of $15, but would not make the same trip to buy a jacket for $120 instead of $125, saving the same $5.

in vitro and in-vivo Economics

Initially, in the 1960’s, Smith set out to demonstrate how economic theory worked in the laboratory (in vitro), while Kahneman was more interested in the ways economic theory mis-predicted people in real-life (in-vivo). He tested the limits of standard economic choice theory in predicting the actions of real people, and his work formalized laboratory techniques for studying economic decision making, with a focus on trading and bargaining.

Later, Smith and Kahneman together were among the first economists to make experimental data a cornerstone of academic output. Their studies included people playing games of cooperation and trust, and simulating different types of markets in a laboratory setting. Their theories assumed that individuals make decisions systematically, based on preferences and available information, in a way that changes little over time, or in different contexts.

University of Chicago

By the late 1970’s, Richard H. Thaler, PhD, an economist at the University of Chicago also began to perform behavioral experiments further suggesting irrational wrinkles in standard financial theory and behavior, enhancing the still embryonic but increasingly popular theories of Kahneman and Smith.

Laboratory

Other economists’ laboratory experiments used ideas about competitive interactions pioneered by game theorists like John Forbes Nash Jr., PhD, who shared the Nobel in 1994, as points of reference.

Assessment

But, Kahneman and Smith often concentrated on cases where people’s actions departed from the systematic, rational strategies that Nash envisioned. Psychologically, this was all a precursor to the informal concept of life or holistic financial planning. Kahneman was awarded the Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama, on November 20, 2013.

READ: Behavioral Economics and Psychology DEM

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Invite Dr. Marcinko

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On Internet and Investing Psychology

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And … Wi-Fi Doctor Investors

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Sourcehttp://www.xkcd.com

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OVER HEARD IN THE DOCTOR’S LOUNGE

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Of course you don’t need a human financial advisor … until you do.

Today, we’ve had unfettered internet access to a wide range of investments, opinions and models for at least two decades. So, why the bravado to go it alone; five straight positive years for equities, since 2009!

The financial advisor’s role is to remove the human element and emotion from investing decisions for something as personal as your wealth. Emotion drives the retail investor to sell low (fear) and buy high (greed). This is the reason why the average equity returns for retail investors is less than half of the S&Ps returns.

No, of course you don’t need a human financial advisor … until you do. And when you do, it may be too late.

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Dan Ariely PhD

[The Irrational Economist]

WiFi

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UNIFYING THE PHYSIOLOGIC AND PSYCHOLOGIC FINANCIAL PLANNING DIVIDE  [Holistic Life Planning, Behavioral Economics, Trading Addiction and the Art of Money]

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Retail Spending Therapy – Even for Doctors!

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More Than Just Shopping?

[By Rick Kahler CFP® http://www.KahlerFinancial.com]

Rick Kahler CFP“It’s not just shopping, it’s retail therapy.”

As a bumper sticker or a joke between friends, this may be amusing. For those who shop to relieve stress, it’s not nearly so funny.

Medicating or soothing painful feelings with money is no healthier a behavior than medicating with alcohol or food. When stressed or in difficult circumstances, some people drink, some people eat, and some people shop.

My Experience

I have worked with several people with extreme forms of this behavior, who described their spending clearly as an addiction. It gave them a physical “high” similar to that experienced by an alcoholic or drug addict. Like other addictions, it had destructive consequences, such as creating overwhelming debt, draining life savings, destroying relationships, and even stealing from family members or employers.

Using spending as a medicator does not always show up in such dramatic ways, however. Even people who seem to live moderately and manage money responsibly can be “therapy shoppers” who spend in order to make themselves feel better.

Case Example:

When I first met Dr. Alexandra, for example, she was single, in her 40s, with a well-paying job as a local hospitalist and substantial net worth. She was investing part of her income, was current on all her financial obligations, and had only a modest amount of debt. She was certainly not spending beyond her means or jeopardizing her future security. She didn’t appear to be in any financial difficulty.

When we looked at her budget, however, the doctor was clearly uncomfortable with some of her spending habits. Instead of simply reassuring her that she was managing her money well and not overspending, I explored this issue with her. Eventually I brought up the possibility that she might be medicating her difficult job emotions with spending. It was an “aha” moment for her. She told me, “I’ve been doing that for years.”

Alexandra’s problem wasn’t the amount she spent. It was the reasons behind her spending. If she had a stressful day at work, she would go to the mall, in much the same way another person might stop at a bar for a couple of drinks on the way home. Shopping, finding bargains, and buying herself gifts were unthinking actions she used to soothe herself when she was upset.

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Frenzy

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She never stopped to ask herself whether she needed, had a use for, or even wanted the things she bought. She didn’t spend more than she could afford, but she was spending time as well as money unproductively. She was also cluttering her house and her life with clothes she didn’t wear, knickknacks she didn’t care about, and gadgets she didn’t use.

Once she realized the emotional reason for her shopping, Alexandra was able to find more constructive ways to deal with stress. She learned that a conversation with a friend, writing in her journal, meditating, or taking a walk could serve the same purpose as a trip to the mall and were healthier responses to difficult days.

Modifying Behavior

For Alexandra, recognizing that she was using shopping to soothe her emotions was enough to help her change. Others, whose behavior is more deeply ingrained, might find change more difficult. In some cases, they might benefit greatly from working with a psychologist, financial therapist or other counselor with the expertise to help them look at the emotions underlying their spending patterns.

Assessment

If you think you may be using spending to deal with stress, it’s important to look beyond the numbers. The main issue isn’t whether your “retail therapy” is affordable or whether it is causing serious financial difficulties. If a pattern of spending is creating discomfort for you, it may be a good idea to explore what’s behind that spending. 

Conclusion

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