Why women make better investors

9 July 2012

Investing has always been a world dominated by men. Men run the banks and investment management groups, and they manage most of the funds. For example, Trustnet's list of the 157 top-rated 'FE Alpha' managers only lists seven women.

But times are changing, as women become more highly educated and 'economically empowered'. According to a new report from Barclays Wealth and Ledbury Research, women worldwide are now responsible for up to 80% of household purchasing decisions.

They are increasingly rising to the top of their professions, building companies or running their own businesses, and more generally taking control of financial decision-making.

And with greater wealth of their own, more women are investing in their own right. According to Selftrade, for example, 10 years ago only 17% of its clients were women - in 2010 they accounted for 39%.

However, while the investment gender gap may be gradually closing, research suggests women and men do not think in the same way when it comes to investing.

The Barclays/Ledbury report shows that women are more cautious investors. Less than a third (31%) of the women surveyed were prepared to take high risks in order to enjoy high returns, compared with half (49%) of men.

Why do men play it safe?

There are several possible explanations, says Dr Emily Haisley, of the behavioural finance team at Barclays Wealth. "Emotionally, women are more prone to experience fear than anger, which can make the downside of risk more threatening," she explains.

She adds that women also tend to see wealth as a source of security for the family, rather than an opportunity to get richer - so they're less interested in taking chances when they do have money.

Men, meanwhile, are more likely to be confident (though not more accurate) in taking risky decisions in laboratory settings; the male hormone testosterone may play a part in fuelling their taste for risk-taking.

Anna Sofat, managing director of the women's financial planning firm Addidi, suggests that women's wariness of financial risk means they could respond very differently in the current market volatility. "They are much less likely to see a 15% market fall as a buying opportunity, as men would - they will either sit tight or move their investments into cash in these conditions," she says.

That's backed up by the Barclays report, which also picks out the tendency of female investors to "buy and hold" their investments for the long term, rather than trying to "time the market" or get into short-term trading.

Indeed, this is a key advantage for women investors, as research has demonstrated that frequent trading tends to reduce your return compared with simply buying and holding investments, because on average the extra dealing costs aren't covered by extra profit.

Cautious optimism

A 2001 study by Terrance Odean and Brad Barber shows that women are on average more successful investors, not because they're better stockpickers or cleverer at timing the market, but because, unlike men, they're not over-confident and don't trade more than necessary.

"There's a difference between over-confidence and confidence. Over-confidence leads men to trade more often - 45% more often than women," explains Miles Standish, managing director of Fisher Investments UK.

"The cost of that extra trading reduces men's profits considerably: women's returns in the Odean and Barber study outpaced men's by 1.4% annually on average, which is a pretty big amount.

Given the power of compounding interest [where interest itself earns interest], that's a huge difference over time. So it's not that women need much encouraging when it comes to investing - maybe men need some discouraging," he adds.

Another trait of female investors is their perhaps surprising tendency to be more rational and analytical than men when it comes to making investment decisions, and less likely to invest on a whim or a 'hot tip'.

"When they're not on familiar territory, women tend to be less instinctive, less influenced by investment marketing blurb or sales pitches than men," Sofat says. "They will research and question more before they commit to an investment, and they"ll also want to be able to go away and think about it before they sign anything. Men are happier about making a decision on the spot."

Are there any investment areas particularly likely to appeal to women rather than men?

Female investors don't just stick to familiar 'girlie' companies - they do their research in areas they're less familiar with. But women are more likely to invest in ethical funds, says Sofat. "Most women really don't want to invest in armaments or pornography or companies that use sweatshop labour, so many of my clients have some ethical investments."

However, Hayley Tink, a financial planner with IFA Almary Green, is less convinced by the argument that women have a different investment mindset from men. She points out that many of the differences between male and female investors are to do with more practical circumstances.

"Some of my older female clients, particularly those who have been in traditional gender roles, often have a self-confessed ignorance about investment matters - their line is that "I always left that up to my husband," she says. These women tend to be more cautious than men, but that's because of a lack of experience.

Additionally, men still earn and build up significantly more money than women in the UK, because women are more likely to take career breaks, or work part-time to raise families and so on. "I think this means many women have less to invest, and that affects their investment approach," she adds.

Clearly it's a complex area, and women have a way to go before they have a similar financial footing to men and feel as comfortable taking investment decisions. But the evidence suggests that their wariness of the markets serves them well, and that in many respects they have a head start as successful investors.

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