Why Are So Many Investors Staying On The Sidelines?

Over the past three years, the stock market has soared more than 100%. Over the past two years, nearly four million jobs have been created in the private sector. Retail sales continue to reach new all-time highs, and corporate profits are through the roof. So why are so many investors continuing to stay away from U.S. stocks? Some behavioral finance experts say it has to do with psychology. 

“Every comparison to 2008, even a comparison that’s supposedly good, stirs memories of 2008. For some people, it rekindles the fear of losing a job or a house. For others, years of retirement savings swallowed by a plunging stock market,” writes Matthew Craft of the Associated Press. “So say the experts in the budding field of behavioral finance. Professional investors and money managers may be baffled that Americans are shaking off the good news. But people with a background in psychology are hardly surprised.””Fear is still with us,” Meir Statman, a professor of finance at Santa Clara University in California and a leading expert in behavioral finance, tells Craft. “We live as if it’s still 2008.”

Statman says a couple of phenomena appear to be at work. One is the tendency for investors (and people in general)  to take an event and uses it as the basis for understanding everything else. “We look at something and ask, ‘What is this similar to?'” he says. Usually, people use recent events as their point of reference, but Statman thinks many investors are now using the 2008 crisis as their baseline because it feels closer. “I think that what’s vivid in people’s minds is not last year but 2008,” he said.

Statman says people are also falling prey to “confirmation bias” — the process in which we look for data that supports our initial belief and cast aside information that contradicts it. “If you have evidence that goes against your beliefs, you dismiss it,” he says. That’s what the “doom and gloom” crowd appears to be doing, he says.