Investor Psychology Cycle - Are We "There" Yet?

By: Prieur du Plessis | Fri, Aug 29, 2008
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As the pendulum swings between greed and fear, investors typically become over-enthusiastic during bull markets and over-despondent as the bear's growl grows louder.

It stands to reason that in order to be a successful investor, it is important to distance yourself from the herd mentality and to take objective decisions based on fundamental reasons.

The typical behaviour of investors is linked to the so-called investor psychology cycle (courtesy RMB Unit Trusts), as illustrated below.

Before seeking to apply the cycle to the present stock market situation, let's consider a short definition of each of the stages.

Contempt: According to the cycle, a bull market typically starts when a market is at a low and investors scorn stocks.

Doubt and suspicion: They try to decide whether what they have left should be invested in a safe haven such as a money market fund. They have burnt their fingers with stocks and vow never to invest again.

Caution: The market then gradually starts showing signs of recovery. Most investors remain cautious, but prudent investors are already drooling at the possibility of profit.

Confidence: As stock prices rise, investors' feeling of mistrust changes to confidence and ultimately to enthusiasm. Most investors start buying their stocks at this stage.

Enthusiasm: During the enthusiasm stage, prudent investors are already starting to take profits and get out of the stock market, because they realise that the bull market is coming to an end.

Greed and conviction: Investors' enthusiasm is followed by greed, which is often accompanied by numerous IPOs on the stock market.

Indifference: Investors look beyond unsustainably high price-earnings ratios.

Dismissal: As the market declines, investors show a lack or interest that quickly turns to dismissal.

Denial: Then they reach the denial stage where they regularly affirm their belief that the market definitely cannot fall any further.

Fear, panic and contempt: Concern starts to take a hold and fear, panic and despair soon follow. Investors again start scorning the market and once again they vow never to invest in stocks again.

In order to determine where in the stock market cycle we find ourselves, the challenge is to identify the prevalent stage of the psychological cycle. I would, for starters, argue that we are on the right-hand side of the curve, but how far down the slippery slope sentiment has declined is less clear. It would seem that we are possibly in the region of the "denial"/"fear"/"panic" phases. Although enduring investor panic and fear have not really set in, the January, March and July sell-offs did witness climatic, albeit short-lived, bouts of despair.

Time will tell whether we are dealing with a typical investor psychology cycle and how it will play itself out. It does, however, seem that we are at not at the "contempt" stage yet, i.e. when investors scorn shares en masse and a bull market typically starts.

I do believe we are still in a primary bear market where stock markets are, at best, faced with a prolonged convalescence period characterized by sub-optimal returns. Whether significant further declines will take place from these levels and valuations overshoot to bargain levels, triggering bouts of panic and fear, is anybody's guess.

However, in the short term I give the nascent stock market rallies the benefit of the doubt provided the mid-July lows are sustained. For any rally to become more enduring will require further base building - possibly wearing investors out to the point of contempt - and an eventual shift in central bank policy to targeting GDP growth rather than inflation.

 


 

Prieur du Plessis

Author: Prieur du Plessis

Dr Prieur du Plessis
investmentpostcards.com

Dr Prieur du Plessis

With 25 years' experience in investment research and portfolio management, Dr Prieur du Plessis is one of the most experienced and well-known investment professionals in South Africa. More than 1 000 of his articles on investment-related topics have been published in various regular newspaper, journal and Internet columns. He also published a book, Financial Basics: Investment, in 2002.

He holds the following degrees: BSc (Quantity Surveying) (Cape Town), HonsB (B & A) (cum laude) (Stellenbosch), MBA (cum laude) (Stellenbosch); and DBA (Doctor of Financial Management) (Stellenbosch).

Prieur is chairman of the Plexus group of companies, which he founded in 1995. Previously he was general manager: portfolio management at Sanlam, responsible for the management of investment portfolios with total assets in excess of $5 billion.

Plexus is a pioneer in the mutual fund industry and has achieved a number of firsts under Prieur's leadership. These include the authoritative Plexus Survey, a quarterly analysis of the consistency of the performance of unit trust management companies, the Plexus Offshore Survey, the Plexus Unit Trust Indices, and the PlexCrown Fund Ratings.

Plexus is the South African partner of John Mauldin, American author of the most widely distributed investment newsletter in the world, and also has an exclusive licensing agreement with California-based Research Affiliates for managing and distributing its enhanced Fundamental Index™ methodology in the Pan-African area.

In 2001 Prieur received the Santam/AHI Business Leader of the Year award for corporate leadership, business acumen and entrepreneurial flair. He was also profiled in the book South Africa's Leading Managers (2006). Plexus received the AHI/Old Mutual Enterprise of the Year award in 1997 and was also included in the book South Africa's Most Promising Companies (2005).

Prieur is 52 years old and lives with his wife, TV producer and presenter Isabel Verwey, and two children in Welgemoed, Cape Town. His recreational activities include long-distance running, motor cycling and reading. He belongs to the Cape Town Club, Johannesburg Country Club, Gordon's Bay Yacht Club and Swiss Social & Sports Club.

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