Omission Bias and Financial Markets

Omission Bias is the tendency to judge the omission of an act more harshly than its commission.  It is widely studied in psychology and has been reliably replicated in a variety of scenarios.  In the context of financial markets, this can have adverse effects because there is no practical difference between investing $100 in a stock that declines 10% the next day and failing to buy one that appreciates 10% the next day.

This of course assumes that you actually have $100.  If you don’t have a float of cash available at all times, then you will not be in a position to seize opportunities.  So that would be the first piece of advice.  Maintain a certain percentage of your investable assets in the form of cash —  perhaps 10%.  Alternatively, you could arrange for a line of credit in a similar amount but make sure you do not do too much of this because it is high risk.  Conversely, holding 10% cash acts to reduce risk.

Another adverse effect of Omission Bias is that it impairs your ability to assess performance.  This is of crucial importance.  Many investors do not have clear enough data of what has worked for them and what has not.  It is essential to have a good focus on this for a number of reasons.  

One benefit is that you can only manage your portfolio appropriately if you have been examining its performance precisely.  A second benefit is that you might be able to identify some specific sorts of trade that you are particularly good at.  You can then seek to identify relevantly similar situations and exploit them.  Also — you might have a chance of avoiding disasters from the past occurring again!

Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy on Pexels.com

Our ability to look at our failures and learn from them is also impeded by our natural distaste for thinking about the unpleasant — but failures are always more instructive than successes.  One might almost say that any fool can succeed — but only an expert can fail well…

A major practical impediment to any attempts to correct for Omission Bias is due to the sheer scale of the problem.  The number of shares you did not buy yesterday is absolutely huge.  There is no way you can think about all of those.  Nor should you.  The more useful comparison is to think about the shares you could have bought or the ones you almost did buy.  So that tells us that you should be looking at several buy options at a time.  Look at what factors led you to choose the one you did choose.  

Maybe you were looking at three oil companies.  You compared them on price/earnings ratios, dividends and price/book value.  You made a choice.  Did that work out?  (Don’t do this next day.  Wait for a reasonable period.  Otherwise you will just be looking at noise.)

What fundamentally is going on with Omission Bias is a sort of agency effect.  If something bad happens and you could have prevented it but did not, this is seen as morally less culpable than if you did something which caused a bad outcome.  After all, “you didn’t do anything.”  I think this perception might be strengthened by the fact that the law says a lot about what we cannot do but rarely says anything about what you must do.  You are at liberty to walk past a baby drowning in a pond.  You are not at liberty to throw a baby in a pond.

This might be fine morally.  But stock markets are not outlets for moral action.  They are locations where you can profit.  Or not.  Bear in mind the possibilities of Omission Bias affecting your judgements of your own decision-making and your decisions will get better and more profitable.

Learn more in the video below:

More Data Explaining Why #Women Are Better #Traders Than Men

Why women are better traders and investors than men — a psychological explanation

Warwick University Business School (“WUBS”) have conducted a fascinating study on the investment performance of men and women.  They show that women perform significantly better with a good sample size and temporal range.  They make some interesting remarks on why this might be.  I think I can add some extra psychological depth to this — so we can see that female traders appear to have some quite deep natural advantages and they should feel encouraged about managing their own investments.

What WUBS did was collaborate with the share dealing service offered by Barclays Bank.  They looked at 2800 investors over three years.  There are various ways of measuring stock market performance, but one of the most common is to compare the performance of a portfolio with a relevant stock market index.  (I explain what a stock market index is here: What Is A #Bear #Market?)

It is quite hard to outperform an index consistently.  This fact is what lies behind the recent strong growth of tracker funds.  You may as well buy the index if you can’t beat it.  The results from the WUBS study showed that women consistently outperformed the FTSE-100 index and men did not.  The male investors returned 0.14% above the index which is basically statistically consistent with having performed equivalently to it.  However, I suspect that these investors would have been better off just buying the index rather than paying a lot of trading fees to obtain the same performance.

The female investors outperformed the FTSE-100 by a massive 1.80%.  This may not sound much, but it is actually huge.  Done over a lengthy period, it would lead to significantly improved results.  Let us assume that the FTSE-100 returns 5% a year.  If you started with £10,000 and performed as the male investors do, you would end up with £45,000 after 30 years.  (It is always important to think long term in the stock market; to prefigure part of the answers I will discuss below, the women seem to understand this.)  The female investors would turn £10,000 into £72,000 over the same 30 year period.  That is a huge improvement over £45,000 and bear in mind that the female investors have taken the same risk, making it even more impressive.  (One caveat is in order here: no one performs this consistently over the long-term–if they say they do, it is a huge red flag.  Remember Madoff?  But the point stands.)

How are female investors outperforming?

WUBS and Barclays set out a few reasons which could explain the outperformance.  One of them is the one we already know about.  Women are less over-confident than men.  I explain how that works here: Women Are Better Traders Than Men.  In summary, women tend less often to think that their new idea is brilliant and then abandon their previous idea before it has had time to work.  Men on the other hand just get extremely convinced about their new sure-fire idea and go with it.  Interestingly, women’s lack of over-confidence is not manifested in what they say about their beliefs.  They just don’t act on them as often.  We could discuss philosophically what that means about our account of belief — but the key point is that women are less likely to trade in deleterious ways!

But there are new reasons suggested.  There are three that I think are especially interesting.

  • Women stay away from terrible ideas like #Bitcoin (this explanation is proposed by a Guardian commentary from Patrick Collinson; see links below)
  • Women avoid “lottery style” trading
    • It has always struck me as insanity to own a lot of penny stocks which are supposed to return ten times the amount you invest in a year because this almost never happens.  As I discuss in my book, The Psychology of Successful Trading, traders can get seduced by vivid stories, incorrectly over-estimating massively their likelihood of coming about.  A far better approach is just to sit still in major stocks for a long time, with maybe some spicy options for fun in a minor section of the portfolio.  The problem with picking the next Amazon (or Bitcoin, for that matter) is that you can’t.  You would have to own a million penny stocks for each Amazon or Apple.  So this strategy is exciting but completely unsuccessful.
  • Men hold on to their losers
    • It seems that women are better at getting out of something which hasn’t worked.  This came very close to home for me.  Infamously, I am still holding Deutsche Bank stock, partly because I recommended it in my book as a contrarian trade.  Banks are supposed to trade at at least book value (in fact, 2.0x before the crisis).  So if you buy a bank at 0.25x book value, you can’t lose right?  Because it is buying something for a quarter of its value.  That hasn’t worked for me yet — maybe a female trader would have got out of this position a long time ago.

In conclusion, we have seen some deep-seated psychological advantages which female traders will have over male ones.  This should encourage women in their investing.

Links:

WUBS: https://www.wbs.ac.uk/news/are-women-better-investors-than-men/

Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/money/2018/nov/24/the-truth-about-investing-women-do-it-better-than-men

I would like to thank Dr M R Hampson for suggesting I look at this.

 

The Illusory Truth Effect And Financial Markets

When we have seen something often, we are more likely to believe it is true. This will weaken the accuracy of decision-making in financial markets and elsewhere

The Illusory Truth Effect is a variant of how we inaccurately use our feelings to make decisions.  We use at least two methods to decide on the truth of a claim or the correctness of new information.  The first method is somewhat allied to one of the philosophical account of knowledge: coherentism.  We assess the claim based on whether it is consistent with what we think we already know.  The second method is to consider how we feel about the claim or purported new information.

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Both approaches have drawbacks.  The first method, while probably the best available, can lead people into multiple errors.  If you already believe something false, you are more likely to believe further false claims which are allied to the first false claim.  We see many pernicious illustrations of this; for example, in political polarisation and various forms of prejudice.

The second approach is more damaging.  In fact, deciding whether something is true or not based on how we feel about it looks so odd that you might wonder whether it can possibly be the case that this happens.  This is another example of a puzzling psychological bias which in fact it makes sense for us to exhibit because, on average, it will produce an answer which is “good enough.”

One thing we don’t like is work.  If we have seen a claim a lot before, we don’t need to work too hard to decide whether it is true again.  (This can also be seen as a processing fluency effect.) We are comfortable with the claim or the apparent information.  I don’t need to think about the route to walk to the gym because I have done it a lot before and it always worked.  This familiarity effect or ease of processing effect is fine in relation to the route to the gym.  And there are going to be a lot of daily questions like that where it would be inefficient to reevaluate them.

This is all fine.  However, it turns out that we also do this with false claims which we have seen often.  That of course is going to be a huge problem.  The Illusory Truth Effect is also known as the Reiteration Effect for this reason.  Basically, if I tell you something which is false a lot of times, you are likely to get comfortable with it and more likely to believe it.

This will have frequent damaging effects in financial markets.  For example, in the case of the Bitcoin bubble, which I forecast approximately three days before the peak:

https://timlshort.com/2017/12/20/the-bitcoin-bubble-is-caused-by-the-halo-effect/

— there are I think some causal factors deriving from the Illusory Truth Effect, though as I discuss there, there are many other psychological biases and errors at work in the bitcoin bubble.

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In particular, what we saw in the case of the Bitcoin bubble was the cult-like nature of the phenomenon.  Proponents of the cryptocurrency repeated hundred of times the same false claims like “it can only go up;” “Bill Gates is enthusiastic about it;” or “all we have to do is HODL (sic) and everything will be fine.”  Cult members believed all of this partly because they had heard it all many times and so they became familiar with it.

Turning to the professional sphere, we can expect that the Illusory Truth Effect will play a part in any bubble involving more than just the inexperienced investors who became infected in the Bitcoin epidemic.   DotCom caught a lot of people (including myself, because I was young and inexperienced.). We heard many times that anything involving the internet was going to be a huge success.  So we started to believe it.

There are many features of markets that are true until they aren’t.  Try to avoid believing something merely because you have heard it a lot.  Look for evidence.

See Also:

The Late Evaluation Effect And Financial Markets

The Psychology of Successful Trading: see clip below of me explaining my new book!

The #Bitcoin Bubble Is Caused By The Halo Effect

The #Anecdotal Fallacy And The #Bitcoin Bubble

If You Like Gin And Marmite, You Are Probably A Better Trader

There are correlations between taste preferences and personality (disorders) which are also highly present on the trading floor — so check your tastes to see if you are already likely to be a winner!

Evidence has been reported that there are correlations between liking certain bitter tastes and certain personality factors.  Personality as generally understood does not really exist; the belief to the contrary is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error.  However, there are some stabilities in character which are or approach being diagnosable as “personality disorders.”  These though are very much in the eye of the beholder in terms of whether or not they impair effectiveness.  It turns out that these same personality stabilities are highly prevalent in competitive professions, so these people must be doing something right.

Researchers from the University of Innsbruck reported as follows:

Individual differences in bitter taste preferences are associated with antisocial personality traits

Bitter tastes are basically self-explanatory.  Marmite and gin and tonic are two obvious examples, but tea or coffee without sugar could be others.  One might also start looking at wine types.

The authors found robust correlations between preferences for such bitter tastes and the Dark Tetrad, which is the Dark Triad plus everyday sadism.  The Dark Triad is one of the stable factors in personality.  It consists of Machiavellianism, psychoticism/psychopathy, and narcissism, at levels below threshold for diagnosis as a personality disorder.

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Machiavellianism could also be termed manipulativeness.  It reflects how likely someone is to be devious or to manipulate others for their own benefit.  Psychosis means susceptibility to delusions.  Some false beliefs — especially false positive beliefs about the self — are correlated with individual success.

Some authors in the literature include psychopathic tendencies instead of psychosis.  These tendencies come from a wide potential array of behaviours.  Some or all of the following may be present:

  • glibness
  • superficial charm
  • grandiosity
  • pathological lying
  • manipulation of others
  • lack of remorse and/or guilt
  • shallow affect
  • lack of empathy
  • failure to accept responsibility
  • stimulation-seeking behaviour
  • impulsivity
  • irresponsibility
  • parasitic orientation
  • lack of realistic life goals
  • poor behavioral controls
  • early childhood behaviour problems
  • criminal activity

Obviously some of these are very unhelpful.  But we can imagine that others could be extremely useful.

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Narcissism is an extreme level of self-absorption and self-belief.  This looks as though it will be really quite useful in terms of allowing people to fail repeatedly with no adverse ego consequences.

 

We know that the Dark Triad –and presumably also the Dark Tetrad, since that is very similar — are heavily over-represented in certain professions.  That is: investment banking, journalism and politics.  All of these professions are extremely competitive and perhaps also require a certain amount of ability to exploit others.  This can therefore explain why the Dark Triad would often be seen on the trading floor as well.

Of course, this shows correlation rather than causation.  However, since we have a plausible explanation as well as a correlation — it seems likely that being a Dark Triad person will be valuable when trading.  And now, since we have observed correlations* with bitter taste preferences, there is an easy way to check!

(Disclosure: I am well-known for liking ridiculous amounts of Marmite.  I don’t mind a gin and tonic either.  And I wrote this: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Psychology-Successful-Trading-Behavioural-Profitability/dp/1138096288/

So that’s one more data point!)

 

See Also:

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

The Illusory Truth Effect And Financial Markets

The Late Evaluation Effect And Financial Markets

The #Bitcoin Bubble Is Caused By The Halo Effect

 

*The Innsbruck researchers say they have succeeded in:

consistently demonstrating a robust relation between increased enjoyment of bitter foods and heightened sadistic proclivities

The #Bitcoin Bubble Is Caused By The Halo Effect

One of the causes of the Bitcoin bubble is a cognitive bias known as the Halo Effect. I will explain how this works and how it is going to prove very expensive for holders of Bitcoin

The Halo Effect occurs when people judge the overall quality of an item or person by considering only a single property of that item.  This can lead to dramatic errors; most obviously when all of the other qualities of the item  are negative or highly questionable.  This I will argue here is one causal factor among several which have caused novice investors to buy Bitcoin.  When it crashes, they will lose all of their money.  They will be unable to exit the market because the power of the cognitive bias is too strong.

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In this post, I will briefly set out the cognitive biases which are in play here before describing the Halo Effect and how it is another feature of human psychology which leads people to mistakenly buy Bitcoin.

The Halo Effect is not the only causal factor operative among the novice investors who are buying Bitcoin.  I have already argued:

https://timlshort.com/2017/12/17/the-anecdotal-fallacy-and-the-bitcoin-bubble/

— that another causal element is that Bitcoin buyers prefer their own experiences to any consideration of statistical data.

In addition, Bitcoin buyers share with Trump voters a distrust of experts, as I argued here:

https://timlshort.com/2017/12/18/the-forthcoming-bitcoin-crash-will-kill-the-trump-demographic/

We can see that as a two variants of the Dunning Kruger effect.  Here, people who lack competence are unable to detect such lack of competence. This makes intuitive sense since people who lack competence and are aware of it would presumably either take steps to address that lack or avoid activity requiring the relevant competence.

A corollary of that is seen in another variant of the Dunning Kruger effect: people are unable to detect true expertise.  We can see this when:

https://timlshort.com/2017/09/16/bad-arguments-for-the-permanence-of-bitcoin/

— someone is able to publish a book on Bitcoin when it is quite apparent that they do not have even a basic understanding of it.  For readers of this book, it must be impossible to recognise and benefit from well sourced, properly constructed arguments, for example in the mainstream media.

I turn now to the Halo Effect.  This was first seen in data about personality assessment in the military.  It was found that officers asked to rate their subordinates would in fact rely on a single criterion, and then assume that all other  relevant factors were correlated with that one criterion.  This is obviously dramatically false unless all of the other variables are correlated with the one assessed.  And that is highly unlikely to be true.

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Many people are unable to distinguish Bitcoin from the blockchain.  This leads many of the novice investors who are buying Bitcoin to fail to distinguish between the two claims “I am buying Bitcoin” and “I am investing in blockchain technology.”

The blockchain is a distributed ledger system which offers transparent recording of transactions (or any data) without the backing of any central authority.  It is an extremely interesting technology which holds great promise.  It could, for example, be used to create corruption-resistant property ledgers.  That would be of great benefit, not least in combatting money laundering.

Bitcoin is termed a “cryptocurrency” even though it does not fulfil the roles of a currency in that it is not readily convertible and it is not a stable store of value.  It is used to reward the miners who maintain the blockchain on a widely dispersed set of servers.  However, it is clear that the blockchain and Bitcoin are not identical.

An objection has been attempted here by a Bitcoin proponent that it is not possible to have a blockchain without a cryptocurrency.  There are a number of readings of that, but on the obvious two, the claim is either false, or true but misleading.  If the claim is read as “you cannot run blockchain code without also generating a cryptocurrency” then it is false.  There is no reason why the blockchain code could not be run with the cryptocurrency elements redacted.

If the claim is read as “it is necessary to compensate the miners, ” then it is true.   However, the miners could be paid in $.  Or the blockchain could run in the cloud, or in many clouds.  That would carry some costs, but this is not a problem.  It would even be possible to compensate the miners in a cryptocurrency which was pegged against the $.  There is no need for the cryptocurrency to appreciate and definitely not to gyrate wildly.  I therefore conclude that the objection fails.

There is one positive property that Bitcoin possesses.  It is true that it is generated using the blockchain technology.  It is also true that the blockchain technology is extremely interesting, and being pursued widely by a number of serious players.  By contrast, no professional, experienced or institutional investor is holding Bitcoin.  Novice investors fall prey to the Halo Effect when they think that the one positive quality of Bitcoin is a measure of its overall quality, when in fact it has no other redeeming features at all.  This will prove to be a very expensive cognitive bias when the Bitcoin crash comes.

See Also:

The Late Evaluation Effect And Financial Markets

The Forthcoming #Bitcoin Crash Will Kill The #Trump Demographic

The #Anecdotal Fallacy And The #Bitcoin Bubble

Bad Arguments for the Permanence of Bitcoin

 

The Picture Superiority Effect And Financial Markets

The Picture Superiority Effect is one of a large number of cognitive biases that affect how we think and act. It is important to know about these biases in the context of financial markets because they can impair our decision making but also inform traders on how other market participants may react

As in previous posts featuring on this blog, I will first outline a cognitive bias drawing from the relevant psychological literature and then describe how that plays out in financial markets.  My basic point throughout is that it is critical for market participants to know about these unavoidable biases for two reasons.  Firstly, knowing about them is the first step to being able to recognise when they are operative and assessing whether they have resulted in an optimal decision, with specific relevance here to trading decisions.  Secondly, since no-one is free of these biases, traders can expect that other market players will be influenced by them and trade accordingly.

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The Picture Superiority Effect is relatively straightforward.  What psychologists have found is that people find it easier to remember images than words.  There are different opinions in the literature as to why this might be.  In my view, the effect is likely to be explained by our preference for the vivid and concrete over the dull and abstract; but in fact, the causation is not that important for our purposes here.  We just need to know that everyone remembers imagery more than text.  This is probably no surprise; in particular in the age of social media, as pictures are shared more widely on social media than text (and so we might surmise that there is also a Video Superiority Effect which is even stronger).

There is some discussion as to how age interacts with the Picture Superiority Effect.  Early researchers found that younger people recalled more pictures than words while older subjects did not, suggesting that the Picture Superiority Effect exists only in younger people.  More recent work, however, appears to find the exact opposite.  Given the general improvement in experimental methodologies that occurs over time and the parallel increase in knowledge, I would say that the more recent studies are more likely to be correct.  But that observation remains subject to further confirmation/disconfirmation.

As a result, there have been some suggestions that what is happening is that images work as a compensation mechanism for older adults who are experiencing memory deficits.  So the overall story may be that younger people are prone to the Picture Superiority Effect, middle age adults are less prone to it, and then older people embrace the effect for compensation purposes.  This would mean something like older people are deliberately relying more on pictures to assist them in remembering things.  There is also advice from the intelligence community (!) to the effect that the way to remember a lot of items without writing them down is to modify a visual memory of a very familiar location, such as one’s home, and add to it strange and striking items which represent the data one wishes to remember.

All of this means that everyone who is involved in financial markets can expect that the Picture Superiority Effect will play a role in their thinking to a differing extent at various life stages.  How would this work?

This type of point — how do cognitive biases affect our performance in financial markets —  is one I discuss at length in my book:

https://www.routledge.com/The-Psychology-of-Successful-Trading-Behavioral-Strategies-for-Profitability/Short/p/book/9781138096288

One example I give there is related to imagery, although I am actually discussing a different cognitive bias called the Availability Heuristic.  The example is the photos and video with which we are all familiar of people who had been fired from Lehman Bros. after it collapsed in the crisis.  These pictures and ones like them are extremely easy to remember.  In fact, they are difficult to forget.  This sort of thing might make you unreasonably averse to buying bank shares.  Similarly, pictures of Elon Musk looking depressed might make you avoid TSLA stock.  There may or may not be good reasons for

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avoiding such stocks (my view is the opposite at present) — but what is 100% clear is that if you read a story about banks or TSLA and only recall a picture of a fired banker or a sad Elon Musk, you have not retained very much which is useful in terms of making a market decision.  Even if you give equal weight to the picture and the words, you are probably still weighting the evidential value of the total information value available to you wrongly.

It is probably wise to set aside the limited information value represented by imagery and focus on the data — which may of course be presented graphically without being just a photo.

See Also:

The Illusory Truth Effect And Financial Markets

The Late Evaluation Effect And Financial Markets

Is Experience Time the same as Experienced Time?

The Psychology of Successful Trading: see clip below of me explaining my new book!

 

 

Negativity Bias And Financial Markets

Negativity Bias is one of the powerful and ineradicable aspects of human psychology, which has important effects on the performance of stock market investors

Negativity Bias is perhaps the most expensive and dangerous item in our psychological repertoire insofar as it impacts on our performance in financial markets.  In this post, I will outline the bias and then discuss how its effects play out in markets.

Negativity Bias is reflected in the finding that negative events affect us much more strongly than positive ones.  I should immediately distinguish this effect from the bias I was discussing in my previous post (https://timlshort.com/2017/11/05/attentional-bias-and-financial-markets/)  There, I discussed the subset of Attentional Biases that operate in people who are depressed or anxious, such that they pay more attention to mood congruent information.  Negativity Bias differs from that in that it affects everyone, irrespective of mood and psychiatric diagnosis.  Some forms of Attentional Bias do that as well, but in the previous post I considered only mood-related variants thereof.

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The bias can be seen as a mis-calibration, like many of our cognitive biases.  There is a “right-size” for the amount of impact that an event should have on us which is related to the “intensity” of that event.  Obviously, intensity is rather a slippery concept here, but we can give some meaning to it with illustrations.  Two negative events of different intensities would be stubbing one’s toe and breaking an arm.  Two positive events with differing intensities would be receiving a birthday card or falling in love.

So without Negativity Bias — and with what we might regard as a purely rational response to events — there would be a link between the intensity of an event and its impact upon us.  There would not be a link between whether the event  was positive or negative and the size of the impact of the event on us.  This does not mean that it is strange that we react negatively to negative events and positively to positive events (in fact, it would be very strange were this not so!).  What it means is that it is odd that we react more strongly to negative events than we do to positive events of the same intensity.

This was measured by experimental social psychologists in financial terms using sums of money.  It was found that the mis-calibration is very strong: the factor is about 2.5.  In other words, we react 2.5x as strongly to losing $10 as we do to gaining $10.  In other other words, losing something is much, much worse than gaining the same amount.

The Negativity Bias then will have huge impacts on our risk aversion, and that, it is well known, is a key driver of performance in financial markets.  Many people perform extremely badly as a result of excess risk aversion.  In the current environment, it is unwise to be holding substantial amounts of cash.  People should have some emergency funds of course.  But if CPI is running at 3% and interest rates paid by the banks are more like 1%, then anyone holding cash in the bank is basically prepared to pay 2% a year in order to avoid any risk, as they see it.

As I see it, paying to avoid risk like this is just concretising the risk.  You don’t gain: you just get the loss in a form you can pretend doesn’t exist.  It would be much better — and in fact less risky understood correctly — to invest in something.  There is an enormous spectrum of assets and geographies out there from equities in the US, Japan, Emerging

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Markets and Frontier Markets to bonds issues by governments, investment grade corporates and junk corporates.  There are thousands of ETFs available offering the widest imaginable range of exposures.  Overcome your Negativity Bias and pick one.

See Also:

 

The Illusory Truth Effect And Financial Markets

The Psychology of Successful Trading: see clip below of me explaining my new book!

The US Was Defeated In #Vietnam By Systematic Theory Of Mind Error

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”