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August 19, 2009

Sticking Your Head in the Sand

Catherine New
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A typical Wednesday morning finds millions of online banking customers checking their balances. Unless, that is, the stock market has tanked.

When the stock market goes down, sticking your head in the sand regarding your own money and investments is not uncommon. Early research findings from Professor Nachum Sicherman, working with George Loewenstein and Duane Seppi at Carnegie Mellon University and Steve Utkus at Vanguard, show that consumers undergo an ostrich effect — giving selective attention to investment information — with their bank account balances when they see bad financial news.

In their study of 3,000 consumers at a regional U.S. bank, Sicherman and his colleagues found that when the market goes down, so does online balance checking. On average, a one percent rise or fall in the stock market increases or decreases, respectively, the likelihood of a customer logging into his or her bank account by one percent. Additional preliminary results taken from the data of one million customers at Vanguard are consistent with this outcome, says Sicherman.

Initial results show that individuals with larger balances, especially those with higher percentage of stocks, check their balances more frequently. Women, for example, go online less than men, and the ostrich effect is stronger for men than for women. Their data also showed that Wednesday has the peak number of account logins and people tend to check their balance between 9 a.m. and noon.

Sicherman and his co-researchers are looking at the results to see if there is a link with patterns of trading.

“To what extent does the ostrich effect affect trading if people are reluctant to look at their account for psychological reasons when the markets go down?” says Sicherman. “The next logical thing to hypothesize is that if they are not looking, then they are trading less. But we don’t have an answer yet.”


Photo credit: Njitram lexe Nav

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