“Lord Grantham didn’t understand the value of diversification.”
“Lady Mary is more prudent.”
Lord Grantham? Lady Mary? Had I wandered into the wrong century? No, Vanguard’s social media team was simply discussing the fifth season of Downton Abbey, a television series about servants, lords, and ladies in post-Edwardian England.
Downton Abbey traffics in high-stakes moral conflict; heartbreak and romance; titillating scandal and velvet-gloved blackmail. The drama also features what seem to be case studies from the curriculum for the Certified Financial Planner™ designation.
Indeed, the characters’ investment and estate-planning blunders have inspired a bull market in coverage by the financial press. (See The Wall Street Journal’s analysis of financial lessons from the show’s third season.)
What fascinates many investors, including my colleagues, is that these blunders reflect cognitive biases and personality traits that play a prominent role in contemporary investor behavior too. Downton Abbey illustrates both self-sabotaging biases and some of the traits that can counteract them.
What if you were exceptionally confident, indeed overconfident, in your investment acumen? You might invest your entire fortune in a single stock. Maybe you’d invest it all in a Canadian railway, as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, does. The railway goes bankrupt. The fortune disappears. The Crawleys must contemplate the sale of their beloved Downton Abbey.
In his overconfidence, Lord Grantham violates the second of Vanguard’s four principles for investing success: Develop a suitable asset allocation using broadly diversified funds. Diversification can’t guarantee against a loss, of course, but it can protect you from an unnecessarily catastrophic loss.
The 2008‒2009 financial crisis provided a similarly vivid lesson in the value of diversification. In 2008, the S&P 500 Index returned –37%. Ugly, but it could have been worse. Investors who held a big stake in the onetime blue chips listed in this table’s first column would have sustained Lord Grantham‒like losses.
The 10 worst and best stocks in the S&P 500 Index in 2008
Sources: FactSet and Vanguard.
The scriptwriters are able to save Downton Abbey. Matthew Crawley, a distant cousin and the heir to the estate, inherits a fortune from the father of his first fiancé, who perished in the 1918 influenza epidemic. Matthew is now married to Lady Mary, Lord Grantham’s eldest daughter. He invests the inheritance in Downton Abbey and assumes responsibility for managing the estate.
Before learning that he had become Downton Abbey’s heir, Matthew worked as a lawyer. (Under the era’s property laws, Lord Grantham’s daughters couldn’t inherit the estate.) The experience gave him insight into the ways that society and the economy were changing. He developed the investment and planning skills to meet the needs of the moment while preparing for the demands of the future.
Lord Grantham hasn’t developed these skills. He displays a tendency toward hyperbolic discounting, spending extravagantly on the estate today at the expense of its long-term future. Matthew must restructure the estate’s operations. He must mean-variance-optimize the family’s portfolio of castles, cattle, and land—or something like that.
Propensity to plan
Matthew benefits from a propensity to plan, a trait that is associated with higher levels of wealth accumulation. But then he dies.
His widow, Lady Mary, is the designated representative of their infant son. She assumes control of the estate. She, too, benefits from a propensity to plan, as well as an interest in what Vanguard founder John C. Bogle calls the “eternal triangle” of investing: risk, reward, and costs. As she seeks to secure the Crawley family’s financial future, Lady Mary contemplates each of these dimensions and decides to invest in pig farming.
Lady Mary turns to her brother-in-law, Tom, for counsel, recognizing the value of good advice. She seems to have an intuitive understanding of Advisor’s alpha, the title of a research paper that Vanguard would write some 90 years later. The research demonstrates that good advisors can protect investors from the kinds of self-sabotaging behaviors—inadequate diversification, impulsive decision-making, a failure to plan—that bedevil Lord Grantham.
Incidentally, Vanguard research on retirement savers has found that women are more likely than men to seek advice. Compared with men, they are more likely to invest in professionally managed asset allocations such as managed accounts and target-date funds, a behavior associated with better outcomes .
As the series unfolds, I’m hoping for a subplot about a revolution in low-cost investing that’s gathering momentum on the other side of the Atlantic. Or maybe we’ll meet a mysterious stranger who shows up in the servants’ quarters with an armful of prospectuses.
“The era of the working estate is coming to an end,” he’ll explain. “In the future, you will have greater opportunity, particularly if you emulate Daisy” (the stranger nods at the assistant cook) “and invest in your human capital through education. You’ll also have greater responsibility to provide for your own financial security. Might I interest you in a prospectus for a target-date mutual fund?”
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