If your needs are not attainable through safe instruments, the solution is not to increase the rate of return by upping the level of risk. Instead, goals may be revised, savings increased, or income boosted through added years of work. . . .
Somebody has to care about the consequences if uncertainty is to be understood as risk. . . . As we’ve seen, the chances of loss do decline over time, but this hardly means that the odds are zero, or negligible, just because the horizon is long. . . . In fact, even though the odds of loss do fall over long periods, the size of potential losses gets larger, not smaller, over time. . . .
The message to emerge from all this hype has been inescapable: In the long run, the stock market can only go up. Its ascent is inexorable and predictable. Long-term stock returns are seen as near certain while risks appear minimal, and only temporary.
And the messaging has been effective: The familiar market propositions come across as bedrock fact. For the most part, the public views them as scientific truth, although this is hardly the case.
It may surprise you, but all this confidence is rather new. Prevailing attitudes and behavior before the early 1980s were different. Fewer people owned stocks then, and the general popular attitude to buying stocks was wariness, not ebullience or complacency. . . .
Unfortunately, the American public’s embrace of stocks is not at all related to the spread of sound knowledge. It’s useful to consider how the transition actually evolved—because the real story resists a triumphalist interpretation. . . .
Excessive optimism helps explain the popularity of the stocks-for-the-long-run doctrine. The pseudo-factual statement that stocks always succeed in the long run provides an overconfident investor with more grist for the optimistic mill. . . .
Speaking with the editors of Forbes.com in 2002, Kahneman explained: “When you are making a decision whether or not to go for something,” he said, “my guess is that knowing the odds won’t hurt you, if you’re brave. But when you are executing, not to be asking yourself at every moment in time whether you will succeed or not is certainly a good thing. . . . In many cases, what looks like risk-taking is not courage at all, it’s just unrealistic optimism. Courage is willingness to take the risk once you know the odds. Optimistic overconfidence means you are taking the risk because you don’t know the odds. It’s a big difference.”
Optimism can be a great motivator. It helps especially when it comes to implementing plans. Although optimism is healthy, however, it’s not always appropriate. You would not want rose-colored glasses in a financial advisor, for instance. . . .
Over the long haul, the more you are exposed to danger, the more likely it is to catch up with you. The odds don’t exactly add, but they do accumulate. . . .
Yet, overriding this instinctive understanding, the prevailing investment dogma has argued just the reverse. The creed that stocks grow steadily safer over time has managed to trump our common-sense assumption by appealing to a different set of homespun precepts.
Chief among these is a flawed surmise that, with the passage of time, downward fluctuations are balanced out by compensatory upward swings. Many people believe that each step backward will be offset by more than one step forward. The assumption is that you can own all the upside and none of the downside just by sticking around. . . .
If you find yourself rejecting safe investments because they are not profitable enough, you are asking the wrong questions. If you spurn insurance simply because the premiums put a crimp in your returns, you may be destined for disappointment—and possibly loss.