Swedroe: Aging No Guarantee Of Financial Wisdom

May 10, 2017

There’s an adage that with age comes wisdom. But do we tend to become better investors as we age? This is an increasingly important question as the U.S. investor population is both aging and living longer. Unfortunately, research has found that in general the answer is no, although it’s not all one-sided.

On the positive side, as we age, we tend to have more diversified portfolios, own more asset classes and have higher allocations to international equities. And older investors tend to trade less frequently (that’s a good thing, as the evidence shows a negative correlation between individual investors’ trading activity and their returns). They tend to be less affected by behavioral errors, such as selling winners too soon (the disposition effect) and local bias (the familiarity effect). They also tend to own mutual funds with lower expense ratios—another good thing. These choices reflect greater investment knowledge.

Older Investors Less Effective

However, George Korniotis and Alok Kumar, authors of the study, “Do Older Investors Make Better Investment Decisions?”, found that “older investors are less effective in applying their investment knowledge and exhibit worse investment skill.”

Korniotis and Kumar also found that, while older and experienced investors are more likely to follow rules of thumb that reflect greater investment knowledge, the adverse effects of cognitive aging dominate the positive effects of experience. For example, they found that stock picks tend to lag the market by ever-increasing amounts as we grow older, and they exhibit poor diversification skill.

They noted: “The age-skill relation has an inverted U-shape and, furthermore, the skill deteriorates sharply around the age of 70.” They found that “on average, investors with stronger aging effects earn about 3% lower risk-adjusted annual returns, and the performance differential is over 5% among older investors with large portfolios.”

As further evidence of this negative relationship, Michael Finke, John Howe and Sandra Huston, authors of the study “Old Age and the Decline in Financial Literacy,” found that while financial literacy scores decline by about 1 percentage point each year after age 60, confidence in financial decision-making abilities does not decline with age.

Thus, they concluded that increasing confidence and reduced abilities explain poor investment (and credit) choices by older investors—age is positively related to financial overconfidence. And overconfidence can be a deadly sin when it comes to investing. Adding to the problem is the tendency for older people to reject evidence of declining cognitive abilities.

Experienced financial advisors know that it is common for clients to experience an increase in behavioral issues when they reach an advanced age, issues that can negatively impact the odds of achieving their financial goals.

If nothing else, as we age and our investment horizon shortens, investors exhibit an increasing preference for more conservative assets—our tolerance and capacity for risk tends to fall. We want more certainty. This argues for an increasing exposure to safer bonds and other assets with low correlation to equities. Yet that can be taken to an extreme when an insufficient allocation to equities can increase the odds of running out of money.


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