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Happy New Year!

The last year has been one of unprecedented change, and some people might argue it's not all been for the better.

In June I recommended voting to remain in the EU (see my blog post) which I believed was the best way forward for the UK. Perhaps unsurprisingly, millions of people ignored my advice and we are now on the uncertain road to triggering Article 50.

Donald Trump didn't seem like a serious contender for US President at the start of 2016, but now we know the outcome and it will be interesting to see how his campaign rhetoric translates into real action.

Enough column inches have been used to discuss the possible outcomes of these events, and I don't propose to add to them further. However I would like to highlight two factors that I believe are worthy of comment because they are relevant to how you organise your affairs and live your life. 

The first is the propensity of human beings to dwell on the negative future. People are suckers for bad news. 

There have been various studies over the years trying to understand why this should be so, with the general conclusion being that people seek out bad news to satisfy a deep-seated need for security. By analysing the details of atrocities and attacks, by poring over reports of natural hazards and disasters, and by tracking the developments in infamous court cases, people hope to gather clues that will enable them to avoid such catastrophes occurring to them. 

Newspapers and media understand this desire for bad news. Studies show that news reports contain as many as 17 'bad news' articles for every 'good news' item. News editors know that if they swing the balance much further towards the positive, people stop buying papers or watching the channels. Bad news sells.

And yet in the real world, the story is much more uplifting. For the vast majority of us, living standards are continuing to rise, we are safer on our streets than ever, and we are living longer and in much better health than at any time in history. The news may be bad, but the world need not be.

The second factor I'll mention is the poor record that humans have of making important decisions. People are asked to make judgements all of the time, ranging from who you prefer as next Prime Minister to whether you want sugar in your tea. Faced with literally thousands of decisions a day, we need some way to shortcut the decision-making process or we would drown under the weight of research needed to always make the right one.

Evolution has left us with a set of internal tools that provide these shortcuts. In many areas of our lives, these tools work well and enable us to function. In others they contribute to our making seriously bad mistakes. And they can be influenced by factors we don't ever recognise.

My wife Sue bought me a copy of Michael Lewis's book 'The Undoing Project' for Christmas, and I'm part way through it. It describes the coming together of two towering figures in the field of psychology, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

The work of these two giants - the former a Nobel Prize Winner - has helped us to understand the biases and failures to which all humans are susceptible. Using the example of creating successful US basketball teams, the book shows how the 'experts' are repeatedly wrong with their predictions, and how they unduly take into account factors such as physical appearance, speech patterns, and skin colour when trying to pick  potentially basketball stars - without ever realising it, and to the detriment of the outcome.

We're all guilty of these biases and misjudgements. We are especially susceptible to relying on the views of people perceived as 'experts' to guide us in our decisions, yet we make our choices of those experts on the flimsiest of reasons.

There is plenty of evidence to show that the politicians we prefer are the ones who look the handsomest, or sound the most competent, or even have interests like ours. We pay scant attention, on the other hand, to their record in their previous roles, their history of leadership, and their qualifications and experience. Perhaps it's all just too much to take in.

Try as we might, we can't avoid these biases, but we can act to minimise them. One way to do that is to use a system.

The area of personal finance and investing is the one I'm most familiar with, and it's the one where people often make the biggest mistakes.  Failing to understand these biases means that people can end up with unproductive investments (or often no investments at all) or sink money into an attractive proposal from an even more attractive individual who has little track record but seems to look the part.

Taking the emotion and bias out of financial decision-making is a big step on the road to long-term success. It's one of the key reasons why our investment approach has delivered such great results for our clients over many years, and it's also a reason why you won't find us making predictions about how those investments are going to perform in 2017.

Given all of the above, I have some simple advice for you (which if you've been following for a while you'll have heard before). 

Don't get worked up about bad news. Recognise that the people delivering it to your TV/Inbox/Twitter feed/radio want you to have a negative reaction so you keep on watching. Try turning off the news altogether, you'll be surprised at how quickly you start to feel more optimistic.

Accept that things are the way they are, and that they aren't necessarily good or bad. They just are. Acknowledge your biases and avoid following the opinions of so-called 'experts' who know nothing about you, your circumstances or desires. 

Have a system, and if you don't know how to create one, find a proper expert in the field (if you do your research you'll soon learn to recognise genuine experts from charlatans) and use theirs.

Let go of the need to be right, do your best work and let the future take care of itself.

Relax and enjoy life. 

Happy New Year!


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