How to Invest in Uncertain Times (part 1)

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The market has been rocked. In the last two weeks (March 3-16, 2020), the S&P 500 has lost over 22% of its value. It’s the fastest 20% descent we’ve ever seen, and no one knows exactly where the bottom will be (or if we’ve already hit it). The market has moved in percentage multiples, both up and down, every day last week, an incredible level of volatility. The leading cause, which still feels surreal, is the propagating Covid-19 virus which has led to mass closings and increasing restrictions. Suffice it to say, it’s been a crazy couple of weeks.

In many ways, we’re in uncharted territory, which means we’ve got questions, like how are we supposed to respond to all of this? What’s the right thing to do when we’re confused about what’s happening? To add some clarity, I’ll offer up a few investing principles throughout this week.

 

Market timing doesn’t work.

  • No one knows what the market will do tomorrow. Many make predictions, but no one really knows. Don’t try to guess where the bottom is, or when we’ll hit it, or when to pull money out of the market, or when to put the money back in. The market is efficient.
  • Let’s say you really want to get out of the market because you don’t believe we’ve hit the bottom yet and you’re not interested in sticking around to find out. In order to successfully time the market you have to get two bets right: you have to get out of the market before it hits the bottom, and you have to get back in at or very near the bottom. The odds are not favorable.
  • A market study conducted at the University of Michigan measured returns from 1963 through 2004 (a period of 42 years). They found that 96% of the positive returns over that period came from 0.85% of trading days (90 out of 10,573 total trading days).
  • Another study done by A. Stotz Investment Research observed a 10 year period, from November 2005 through October 2015. After running the data through several simulations, they concluded that if you missed the 10 best market days over the specified 10 year period, you would stand to lose, on average, 66% of the gains you would have captured by staying in the market.
  • When the market moves up, it moves up quickly. Whenever your money is on the sidelines, you risk missing some of the best days the market has to offer. So stay invested, don’t panic, and anticipate the rebound.

It’s a Rough Day in the Market

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As I write this on March 9, 2020, market indexes across the board are down, some by as much as 9%. Coronavirus has made the market skittish enough over the last few weeks, to compound things Saudi Arabia announced massive cuts to the price of oil this morning, which actually seems kind of great (lower gas prices!), but markets have not reacted kindly. The response feels like panic. It’s certainly a bad day in the market, but I want to provide a little bit of context for all of this.

 

Here’s what you should know:

  • Unless you know the future or have inside information (unlikely, and illegal to trade on), you should be a long term investor. Short term market moves are pure gambles, and most often end up hurting investors. Don’t move money based on fear, which is all we hear in the news, especially on days like today.
  • Despite what pundits may be saying, no one knows what the market will do tomorrow. No one knows where the bottom of a downturn is, no one knows how long it will last or how quickly the market will come back. Don’t panic with your money, especially when the market is down.
  • Bad market days have happened before. On Black Monday (October 19, 1987) the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 22.61%, in one day! In order to crack the top 20 bad market days the Dow would have to lose 7%, but even if that does happen, we’ve seen the market bounce back from far worse.
  • The market bounces back quickly. When the S&P 500 loses 10% or more it recoups all losses within an average of about 4 months. The worst thing you can do is move money when the market is down and miss the bounce-back.
  • A limited number of great days in the market account for most of the great returns. A 20 year period between 1998 and 2018 included 5,040 trading days. If you missed the 30 best market days out of the total 5,040, you would have ended up with a slightly negative return over the 20 year period, $10,000 would have turned into less than $9,000. We don’t know when those great days will come (though we know they often follow bad days) but we definitely don’t want to miss them by being out of the market.
  • Markets move, but the general trajectory is up. If you’re invested for the long haul and you understand your risk tolerance, bad market days are no problem. They don’t even have to be stressful.

 

Here’s what you should do (or not do):

  • Don’t panic. This is not the first time we’ve had a bad day in the market and it won’t be the last. The worst thing you can do is move your money out of the market. In fact, bad days in the market are a great time to invest more.
  • Make sure you understand how and why you’re invested the way you are. The market will sustain losses, but an un-diversified portfolio stands to lose a lot more. On the flip side, a well-diversified portfolio can put your mind at ease.
  • Make sure your diversified portfolio has a systematic way of rebalancing. When the market is moving, a system for rebalancing will ensure that parts of the portfolio that are doing well are sold, and the parts that are down are bought. It’s an automatic ‘buy-high-sell-low’ feature.
  • Work with an investor coach. When things look bad, all the news and information surrounding you will only confirm your worst fears. An investor coach will keep you disciplined, make sure the accounts are rebalanced, and will ultimately guide you through turbulent markets to a successful outcome.

Investing is like working out

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Everyone knows they should be exercising. Everyone would love to tighten up the softer spots, see some muscle definition, feel strong and energetic, and be more confident in the way they look. Unfortunately few do it.
The formula to accomplish all of these great benefits is not complicated. Everyone knows about a gym nearby they could join or maybe already have joined, everyone knows how to walk or run on a treadmill, everyone understands basic dumbbell movements, everyone has broken a sweat at some point in their lives. We know what exercise is, it’s a pretty simple concept.
So why are so many of us overweight and dissatisfied with our physical selves? Working out is simple, but it’s also hard. It takes work, it takes some pretty intense discipline, and it takes a severe level of consistency.
Investing is similar (although, maybe a little more complicated). Most of us understand the concepts of buy and hold, diversify, and making regular contributions, but it’s tough to do it right and do it consistently. When the market recessed in 2008, net redemptions (the amount of money being pulled out of the market) were astoundingly high. Buy and hold philosophies went out the window when things got scary. When trade wars make the international investing landscape seem less certain, people begin wondering if they should be invested outside the U.S. at all. When people want to buy a house their retirement accounts seem like a good place to pull money for a downpayment. None of these things are evil, but they’re often hampering financial progress, and sometimes lead to devastating effects. It’s simple, but we still mess it up.
What’s the solution to these things that are simple but hard, these things that we know we should be doing but have a difficult time actually doing? The solution is a coach.
We get coaching from all over the place, books we read, people we trust, professionals, etc. In fitness, a coach is someone who gets you to the gym and shows you what you need to do. In investing, a coach helps you understand investing, avoid pitfalls and panics, and achieve outcomes you’re pursuing.
So work with an investing coach, and hit the gym.

Are you market timing?

Market timing is the practice of moving money in and out of the market, or in and out of specific sectors of the market, based on a belief that the market, or specific sectors of the market, will do well (in which case you’d be in) or poorly (in which case you’d pull out) in the future. If you’ve read about stock picking, market timing might sound familiar. Market timing is similar because it’s also built on a false premise that the market is inefficient, but it’s also a little bit different. Market timing is more subtle than stock picking. Instead of a belief that you can buy underpriced stocks and sell overpriced stocks, market timing is a larger bet on the future of entire market sectors. It gives the allusion that you can simultaneously be well-diversified and engage in market timing since you might always own a few different asset classes. It’s sort of like stock picking in disguise (it’s often called ‘tactical asset allocation’ which sounds super smart) because it’s essentially picking market sectors (asset classes) instead of stocks. Market timing can seem more legitimate than stock picking, but it’s still essentially gambling.

Market timing is unfortunately just as pervasive in the investing world as stock picking. It is often incited by panic, people move their money around or out when the market seems especially scary and move it back again (or not) when the market feels more safe. The timing tends to be exactly opposite of what should be done, people end up selling low and buying high and sacrificing millions of dollars in returns. But damage is done apart from panic too. Dalbar (an investor research company) reports that the average equity (stock) fund investor stays invested in their funds for only 4 years before jumping to a different set of funds, perhaps unintentionally market timing. Money managers routinely shift strategies within popular mutual funds (referred to style drift), shifting focus between market sectors. Pundits constantly discuss market trends which include market timing suggestions. Similar to stock picking, we’re so immune to market timing that it just sounds like normal investing at this point. That’s bad, here are a few reasons why:

1) People are bad at market timing. A study by William Sharpe conducted in 1975 (Likely Gains from Market Timing) concluded that in order for a market timer to beat a passive fund they would have to guess right about 74% of the time. An update to the study by SEI Corporation in 1992 concluded that the market timer would have to guess right at least 69% of the time, and sometimes as high as 91% of the time in order to beat a similarly invested passive fund. So the important question is: does anyone guess right with that frequency? Maybe you’ve made your own guess by this point, the answer is a resounding no. CXO Advisory did a fascinating study on the success ratios of market timers between 2005 and 2012. They looked at 68 ‘experts’ who made a total of 6,582 predictions during that period. The average accuracy of all predictions? 46.9%, well short of the minimum 69% threshold. These predictions sell news subscriptions and online adds, but they’re detrimental to investor returns.

2) Market timers miss out on returns. Trends are a big topic in the world of investing. Market timers analyze previous trends, they track current trends, and they look for the next trend, it’s incessant. Nejat Seyhun in a 1994 study entitled “Stock Market Extremes and Portfolio Performance” analyzed the period between 1963 and 1993 (a total of 7,802 trading days) and found that only 90 of the days were responsible for 95% of the positive returns. That’s about 3 days per year on average where 95% of returns came from. In all the misguided ‘trends’ talk and the popular practice of moving money in and out and all around, market timers routinely miss the most rewarding days in the market. Instead of focusing on market trends, investors would do much better to focus on the whole market and ride the general stint of the market upwards.

3) Market timers misunderstand the market. The most culpable cause of market timing is panic. People do crazy things when they’re scared and their money is on the line. Don’t get me wrong, the stock market can seem pretty scary, and it definitely involves money, but just because it seems scary doesn’t mean you should be scared. The average market crash of 10% or more lasts just under 8 months, 4 months until it hits the bottom, and just under 4 months to return to the pre-crash high. That’s not so scary. Over the last 93 years (going back as far as we have super-reliable data) 68 years were positive by an average of 21%, 25 years were negative by an average of 13%. Also not so scary. There are 45 countries in the world with free markets and the ability to buy and sell stocks and over 17,000 companies to invest in. What would it take for a well diversified portfolio to lose everything? Only some type of global apocalyptical event, at which point you probably wouldn’t be concerned with the amount of money in your portfolio. That is scary but not because of the market, it’s actually pretty reassuring as far as your portfolio is concerned. Instead of panicking, investors would do much better to rebalance during turbulent markets and capture returns on the way back up.

So market timing is a losing game. It can’t provide any consistent value to a portfolio, it actually causes a drag on returns, and it’s often driven by an inaccurate understanding of the market. Unfortunately it’s prevalent, and many portfolios engage in market timing while investors remain unaware. So take a look, have an advisor do an analysis for you. It pays to understand how you’re invested and to avoid market timing in your portfolio.

Sources:

https://www.ifa.com/12steps/step4/#footnote_3

https://money.usnews.com/investing/buy-and-hold-strategy/articles/2018-06-19/no-right-time-for-market-timing