The Risk of Anchoring Investment Expectations to a Market High

Rick KahlerAdvisor Perspectives welcomes guest contributions. The views presented here do not necessarily represent those of Advisor Perspectives.

Imagine that you have part of your retirement funds in a diversified portfolio in the stock market. A year after your initial investment, the news is buzzing with stories about record-breaking market highs. Seeing the value of your portfolio climbing, you feel like a financial genius. Life is good! You feel light, happy, and free from anxiety. You start to envision purchasing a yacht in retirement and sailing into the sunset.

Then eventually, as it did this September, the market takes a nosedive. Suddenly, those feelings of happiness and lightness are a distant dream. Panic creeps in. You’re anxious, afraid that you have “lost money,” and starting to worry whether you’ll have anything left to support your retirement.

Welcome to the world of anchoring, where your serenity takes a back seat to anxiety.

Anchoring is a quirk of human psychology, a cognitive bias where we fixate on a specific reference point when making decisions. This is often an initial piece of information, or it may be a noteworthy point like a recent market high. We might rely on that number as our definition of investment success. Any downward deviation from that point feels like an emotional gut punch that may lead to fear, panic, or even despair.