The cost of recency bias

Sunél Veldtman, | 12 June 2019

2018 was a difficult year, one of the most difficult of my career. An overriding pessimism enveloped us: Trump was fighting with China over trade, Brexit turned out to a big mess, Europe stood, once again, on the precipice of a recession, the currency declined, South Africans learnt more about the extent of our leader’s corruption and financial markets tanked. Some analysts judged it the worst broad-based decline in financial market history.

At the end of 2018, we were deeply depressed. 

We could not envisage a turnaround. The fundamentals of the immediate future looked bleak. We could only imagine a future like our immediate past.

Most of us did not anticipate what happened next. World markets rallied by 10% in January and continued to speed ahead in February.

Let’s hope you didn’t act on your depression in December. Let’s hope you didn’t sell your shares. You would have missed out on a swift turnaround, wiping out most of your losses suffered in the previous year.

Now we have no way of knowing whether those two months are any indication of the months ahead, but as humans we too frequently let ourselves be swayed by the recent past.

Recency bias is all around us. It’s why we’ll bet on the Bulls when they’ve had a winning streak. It’s why people don’t clean their gutters during droughts. It’s why people buy on credit when interest rates are low. 

But those trends can turn around, sometimes unexpectedly and against all odds. Then you have lost on your sure bet, your house is flooded because you haven’t provided for rain and you cannot afford your bond repayment.

In investments, recency bias cause investors to withhold savings when returns are poor so that they lose out on the good returns to follow. Or it leads investors to pile into the most recent ‘sure thing’. Think of the recent crypto currency experience – the spectacular returns lured investors to invest just before the crash. Recency bias is costly in investments and in life. Be aware. The most recent past may not repeat itself.

Kind regards,