The Wall Street Journal: “For Mother’s Day, Give Her Reins to the Portfolio”

The Wall Street Journal: “For Mother’s Day, Give Her Reins to the Portfolio”

May 9, 2009

From the Wall Street Journal

By Jason Zweig

Fess up, fellows: The masters of the universe have turned out to be masters of disaster. No matter which aspect of the financial crisis you consider, there is a man behind it.

So, it is worth pointing out, this Mother’s Day weekend, how different things might be if the financial world were female.

Finance professors Brad Barber and Terrance Odean have found that women’s risk-adjusted returns beat those of men by an average of about one percentage point annually. In short, women trade less frequently, hold less volatile portfolios and expect lower returns than men do.

On the other hand, in the testosterone-poisoned sandbox of the male investor, the most important thing is beating the other guy; the second most important: bragging about it. The long term is somebody else’s problem, and asking for advice is an admission of inferiority. Worrying about risk is for sissies. Leverage is good, since it raises returns — while the market goes up. Is it any wonder the male-dominated world of Wall Street has boomed and busted every few years for more than two centuries?

Women, by contrast, put safety first. Even after controlling for age, income and marital status, women are more inclined than men to wear seat belts, avoid cigarette smoking, floss and brush their teeth and get their blood pressure checked. They even have been shown to be 40% less prone than men to run yellow traffic lights.

Women are less afflicted than men by overconfidence, or the delusion that they know more than they really do. And they’re more likely than men to attribute success to factors outside themselves, like luck or fate.

In 2001, a survey of financial analysts and investment advisers found that women felt it was much more important than men did to avoid incurring large losses, falling below a target rate of return and acting on incomplete information. In short, women are more risk-averse than men. And they shy away from uncertainty: Asked whether having ambiguous information would reduce their confidence and raise their perception of risk, 92% of the women said yes, versus just 69% of the men.

“There’s a general emotional difference between men and women as they perceive and take risks,” said Jennifer Lerner, a psychologist at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Negative events like natural disasters, terrorist attacks or a financial crisis usually make men more angry than fearful. Women, on the other hand, tend to feel more fearful than angry.

Those differing emotions lead to divergent viewpoints. Seen through what Prof. Lerner calls “a lens of anger,” the world seems more certain, more amenable to our control and less risky. Viewed through a lens of fear, however, the world appears full of uncertainty, beyond our control and rife with risk.

The results of a nationwide survey of hundreds of investors conducted in March, just days after the Dow bottomed at 6547, show how anger and fear in the minds of men and women can affect their financial decisions. Men were far more likely than women to say they were “more angry than fearful” about the financial crisis. And one in eight men, but only one in every 40 women, had “made riskier investments looking for long-term growth” in the previous week. Female investors were twice as likely to expect the return on stocks over the coming year to be zero or negative and to think stocks will return 5% or less per year over the next 10 years.

“The women were more concerned but took fewer actions,” said psychologist Ellen Peters of the University of Oregon, who co-directed the survey. “They were also more pessimistic — or realistic? — about what to expect from the market.”

Stocks are up 35% since March, so the women’s fears haven’t yet come to pass. But their inaction already looks wise. And their realism can’t hurt, either. “The essential traits and qualities of the male,” H.L. Mencken once wrote, “are at the same time the hall-marks of the numskull. … Women, in fact, are the supreme realists of the race.”

Memo to men: Your household’s investment portfolio will be less risky and more diversified if your wife helps manage it. She will share in what comes out of that portfolio down the road; shouldn’t she share in what goes into it? Chances are, her ideas and emotions will complement yours, and you will both end up wealthier. At least one of you will end up wiser.