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July 13, 2011

Column: Fear of losses may lead to negative investment behavior

Like every other investor, you'd prefer not to see the value of your investments drop. But at some point they will fall simply because of the ups and downs of the market. And how you respond to short-term losses can help determine if you enjoy long-term investment success.

Investors' feelings about losses can be complex. In the field of economics, an area of study is devoted to "loss aversion" — the concept that people dislike losing money so much that, given a choice, they'd prefer to avoid losses rather than take gains. For example, if you have a high degree of loss aversion, then you will find greater dissatisfaction by losing $100 than you'd get satisfaction from taking a $100 profit.

Loss aversion can lead to various forms of negative investment behavior. Here are two of the most common results:

* Seeking "risk-free" investments. When you think of investment losses, the first thing that probably comes to mind is a drop in stock prices. If you're really loss-averse, you might seek to avoid this situation by simply avoiding stocks and placing all your money in other investments. While some of these investments may seem "risk-free," you must consider factors such as inflation — the possibility that these investments may provide returns that don't keep up with the rate of inflation.

* Holding "losers" too long. From time to time, you will own investments that, for whatever reason, underperform. If you're highly loss-averse, though, you may have a tough time acknowledging the losing nature of these investments, so you may be tempted to hold on to them until they "bounce back." But if the investment's fundamentals change, or if the investment no longer aligns with your goals, it may be time to sell it and look for other opportunities. Conversely, you may want to hold on to quality investments whose price has dropped in the short term because these investments may well recover.

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