7 Deadly Sins Of Investing And How To Avoid Them

In Seven, the neo-noir thriller, detectives David Mills and William Somerset (played by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman) track down a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as a motif in his murders. Investing may not be as lethal as a serial murderer. Here, we discuss the seven deadly sins of investing,  how they may impact our stock performance through destructive mistakes, and how we can avoid them.

What Is Investing?

Investing is a way to potentially grow the amount of money you have. The goal of making investments is to buy financial securities and hopefully sell them at a higher price in the future than what you initially paid. A saver can become an investor by giving your money a chance to work for you.

Investing is the best path to achieve wealth but it’s not a straight road. Unlike saving, investing involve some risks that could cause you to lose money.  You need to understand these hazards so you may be able to mitigate them. Investors purchase stocks and bonds with long term goals, unlike traders who have short term plans.

We can lose money when investing leads to emotional behavior or bad habits. Start investing as early as you can so you can earn money on top of the money you already earned, called compounding returns. Stay focused and purposeful so you can avoid behavioral biases which often play a detrimental role. Using financial discipline when investing can help you to achieve success

The seven deadly sins passed down from the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages may cause investors to perform poorly as modern examples for each deadly sin. The seven deadly sins are lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.

1. Lust

When thinking of this deadly sin, I can’t help thinking about Jordan Belfort, better known as The Wolf of Wall Street. Belfort, or what we see of him, nearly defines every deadly sin. For that reason, he and the movie based on his memoir is pure entertainment and instructive for those who lust after sex and money.

As the first deadly sin, lust is a strong craving or intense longing such as sexual desire. It can also mean hunger for money. From an investor’s point of view, falling in love with your investments can be hazardous. Heavily favoring one stock may result in too much concentration risk in your portfolio.

Overexposure To One Stock Poses Concentration Risk

Take the example of Gur Huberman’s “Familiarity Breeds Investment” study in 2001, which involves ATT’s (“Ma Bell”)1984 breakup. When ATT split into the 7 Baby Bells, its shareholders received equal amounts in each new company.

Huberman found investors tended to retain a disproportionate amount of shares in their local Bell company. These individual investors held as much as $10K-$20K of a single stock, a higher concentration than the typical stock holding in a US household’s net worth.

Overexposure to one stock poses more significant risks to your portfolio that can sneak on you from slowing fundamentals. Investing in the company you work for is common for many people. However, if you have substantial ownership of shares where you work for and in your investment and retirement accounts, you have too many eggs in one basket. Instead, you need to diversify your portfolio with different stocks, industries, and asset classes.

2. Gluttony

Gluttony is the overconsumption of eating and drinking. We have all been there, gorging ourselves over an excellent meal, and feel our regrets afterward. Dante refers to this sin as “excessive love of pleasure.” We may be engaging in gluttony by overindulging our funds into less liquid investments without leaving a cash balance to buy stocks in a correction or pay off debt.

The recent excessive trading of GameStop shares by retail traders to shake up Wall Street seemed to be foolhardy, if not reckless. Sending that stock into the stratosphere caught everyone’s attention before coming back to earth but may have been costly.

Diversification, Asset Allocation, and Rebalancing

Alternatively, some people hoard their cash in a savings account, which generates little interest income, especially in this low rate environment. Investors need to be careful in allocating money into investments and having funds for emergencies, debt pay-offs, and retirement.

The antidote to gluttony is purposefully investing with strategies that embrace diversification, asset allocation, and periodic rebalancing.

3. Greed

“My name is Jordan Belfort. The year I turned 26, I made 49 million dollars, which really pissed me off because it was three million a week.”

The Wolf of Wall Street

“Greed is good…Greed, in all its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge in mankind and greed.”

Gordon Gekko, Wall Street, the movie

Greed is not good, but it is very prevalent in the world of investing. The Wall Street (“the Street”) culture is all-consuming. It breeds greed and the need to make more than the person next to you. Not everyone working on the Street is greedy, or a criminal but temptations are there as they are everywhere.

The definition of greed as a sin is an intense and selfish desire for something of value, referring to wealth, material possessions, power, or food. Trendy investments are often collective greed that may become long term losers. Stock manias reflect “irrational exuberance,” a phrase used by then-Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan when he commented on stock’s higher asset values than fundamentals warrant.

Bubble manias of the past–Dutch tulips, South Sea, Japan’s real estate and stocks, dot-coms, housing– should provide historical context to fear and greed in today’s markets. We hear about overbought markets but justify our purchases in SPACs, bitcoin, Tesla, Nio, so we aren’t left out of some of the apparent winners.

Lock-In Some Profits

How can we better deal with our greed, so we don’t become a casualty of fickle markets? No one gets hurt taking some profits off the table. I sell a small percentage of my gains regularly, usually, after a stock rises 20%-25%. This way, I may avoid my winners blowing up, an experience I have in my past.

Recognizing the need to be rational when investing is essential. It means doing your research, or if you feel you don’t have the time, are too emotional, or don’t have the inclination, you may be better off finding a financial professional to advise you in your best interests.

Take heed from another respected investor, Warren Buffett, “We simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful.” There is a Fear and Greed Index (FGI) that measures investor sentiment for those opposing emotions daily, weekly, monthly, and annually. Too much fear can send stocks down, while greed indication may push stocks up.

4. Sloth

Why do they have to pick on this cute animal known for moving slowly and spending most of its time upside down in trees? As a deadly sin, sloth translates to an absence of interest or not exerting oneself physically or mentally. Said another way, it is the avoidance of hard work and perseverance, or simply laziness.

We can usually spot sloths who are lazy about physical exercise. However, investing requires cognition or understanding of what you are doing with your money. 

Laziness can hurt you when you are jumping into stocks without rhyme or reason. A slothful investor may under-invest or spend too little time reviewing one’s portfolio. Investing is not a “set it and forget it” activity. Investors may mistake the buy and hold strategy as akin to that. The buy and hold strategy means that you have a long-term perspective, but you need to adjust your portfolio for new or changing information.

Be Aware of Biases At Work

Making investments requires research. Even if you are planning to use a financial advisor, research is necessary. You still need to find a person or team that works to understand your financial goals to work with you on your financial plan.

Slothful people may be prone to procrastinate over making decisions. The status quo bias occurs when someone may be resistant to change. The endowment effect is similar, but it occurs when someone places a higher value on what they already have. Shortly after my parents passed away,  I inherited stocks, such as ATT and IBM, conservative names appropriate for their portfolio but not necessarily mine. Yet, I held on to their stock picks as an example of an emotional bond that was irrational.

How To Avoid A Slothful Nature?

If you intend to monitor your portfolio, recognize the need to be proactive in having diversification, taking some profits, and making adjustments as warranted based on changing company fundamentals. There are many different kinds of low-cost index funds that have other purposes of fitting your investment strategies. For example, you may look at target-date index funds that may appropriately adjust holdings based on your age.

Automation

You can automate your paycheck by allocating a certain amount or percentage to go into retirement savings, so you don’t have to remember to contribute to this account regularly. It is essential to use your paycheck to make it easy to make investments, save money, and pay bills.

Consider talking to a financial planner to help you with your financial goals and make investments for you.

5. Wrath

“Heeere’s Johnny!”

Jack Torrance, off-season caretaker in The Shining

There are many images of wrath, but Jack Nicholson’s character comes to mind. Wrath is defined as uncontrolled feelings of anger, rage, vengeful, and even hatred. Jim Cramer’s very rational rant in 2007 (and transcript) as the financial crisis was unfolding, but the Fed Chair was not yet cutting the fed funds rate or adding liquidity to the markets.

When the stock market becomes volatile as it did during 2007-2009 and in March 2020, we have wrathful states that pose dangers for any investor. We become angry at bad decisions for keeping stocks too long or selling them too fast as many jumped to do as the stocks sold off in March in the shortest bear market in memory.

GameStop As An Example of Irrational Buying

Retail traders who may lack experience may seek greater risk than they can handle and make irrational buying decisions.  We saw some recklessness as buyers were bidding GameStop shares up to crazy prices beyond their poor fundamentals.

It seemed as though traders were trying to punish short-sellers such as hedge funds by engaging in combat. Stories of young investors who took out costly loans to buy shares at exorbitant prices are heartbreaking. We wrote a letter to young investors you can read here.

Studies suggest that anger may increase our risk-taking. Don’t be reckless and engage in using leverage like margin trading.

Avoid anger and other emotions when making investments. The market doesn’t hold grudges, know how to be vindictive, or have a memory from day-to-day.  Investors need to make adjustments for changing circumstances.

Learn From Mistakes And Use Discipline

Learn from your mistakes to not sell as the market is plummeting unless you need liquidity. Stay rational by not impulsively trading or investing. Give yourself some discipline by selling a losing stock after it drops 7%-8% to avoid a more significant loss. Consider taking some profits off the table to lock in those gains.

6. Envy

Have you ever felt envious? Of course, you have. Envy is a feeling of resentful longing often brought on by someone else’s possessions, better standing, or luck. Envy often leads to conspicuous consumption to match those around them at work or in the neighborhood. The phrase “keeping up with the Jones” may mean buying a new car or a boat to fit in with other people around you.

Investing circles may envy those who are “killing in the market” when they share their wins in the most trendy stocks or funds. What they may not be telling you is about the mistakes they have made in the past. At one time, people envied Bernie Madoff’s clients for above-average returns, and we know how that movie ended.

Herd Mentality Bias

Merrill Lynch may still refer to its financial advisors as its “thundering herd,” but following or copying the herd is a negative sentiment. In behavioral finance, herd mentality bias refers to the investors’ tendency to follow what other investors are doing in the market.

Think of dot-coms, GameStop, or popular acronyms for groups of stocks such as “FAANG,” standing for Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google, before it changed its name to Alphabet.

It is not always the wrong move for individual investors to buy rising stocks that reflect heavy trading volume. Sometimes that is a healthy indicator of institutional buying, and it is painful to go against the smart money crowd. However, it will financially hurt when large investors start shedding stocks in their portfolios.

Don’t Chase Hot IPOs

Individual investors, who typically do not have access to new issues, often seek the hot IPOs after pricing in the primary market. The average first-day pop in the post-IPO stock is 20%, but hot names have shot up 80%-100% or more. Six months later, many of these stocks have fallen below their IPO price as the aura on these stocks is gone, a casualty to weaker fundamentals than expected.

Instead of being envious, learn about investing, risks, and develop strategies that work for you. Remember that Madoff’s returns were fictitious. It is in our nature to compare ourselves with others. However, you cannot be sure that you are looking at anyone’s full picture. Don’t waste your energy on envy.

7. Pride

“Details of your incompetence do not interest me.”

Miranda Priestly, The Devil Wears Prada

Pride or extreme pride is hubris, a Greek cousin to pride. Hubris means self-confidence, arrogance, and corrupt selfishness. One who has hubris irrationally believes they are better, superior and has excessive admiration of their self-image. Having this kind of pride is a self-destructive vice, especially harmful when you are an investor.

It is hard to work for someone like Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly, who always desires to be right. As an investor, the need to be right can hurt your ability to make money.

You may hold on to a losing stock and an unrealized loss rather than admit you are wrong. The justification for holding on to the stock is that it is only a loss on paper until you sell it. However, a 10% unrealized loss can widen if fundamentals warrant it. Loss aversion bias is the tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains.

Overconfidence Bias

Another bias is overconfidence, which means having an egotistical belief in your investing acumen. It is challenging to perform better than the market averages, but those who are overconfident tend to operate with the false comfort they can perform well.

Instead, having a fear of being wrong in many investing situations can help you stay on your toes. The best investors avoid overconfidence and consider worst-case scenarios as medicine to remain aware of downsides in the market. They recognize that there is much that you cannot control about the market.

Avoiding The 7 Deadly Sins With These Investing Rules

To recap some of the ways you can avoid the investing pitfalls associated with the seven deadly sins:

Avoid concentration risk by diversifying your portfolio and do asset rebalancing.

Be aware of the emotions and behavioral biases that impact our decisions.

Don’t dump stocks during times of market turbulence.

Buying hot IPOs post-pricing is not a good idea, as there will be a better time and price to do so. 

No one gets hurt taking profits off the table to lock in gains.

Don’t engage in reckless strategies such as short-selling or using leverage to buy stocks.

Use automation to move money more quickly from your paycheck to contribute to your savings, retirement, and investment.

 

Final Thoughts

When investing, you may have run into the seven deadly sins that can impact your performance. Counter each sin, often wrapped in emotion or biases, with purposeful investing to avoid common mistakes.

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