Stress-free investing involves an understanding of the market. Not an understanding of what the market will do in the next 10 minutes, or next 10 days, or next 10 months, that would require psychic abilities which is unfortunately unrealistic, but a real understanding of how the market works and what you can and should expect from the market.
Two main points here:
The market is unpredictable. Prices already reflect all of the knowable information, the market moves based on future information. Since no one knows the future no one knows how the market will move in the future, despite what some financial professionals may have you believe. The misnomer that you or the professional you’re working with must have some insight into the future movements of the market is the cause of a lot of stress by itself. Thankfully, stress-free investing doesn’t require clairvoyance.
The market is volatile but it trends upward. The volatility makes the market feel dangerous. People generally believe that they could lose most or all of their money in a market downturn (talk about stressful!). But the truth is that markets trend upwards, and over long periods of time (10+ years) the market is always up, despite whatever crashes it may have endured (including the Great Depression and the 2008 housing crash). If you’re invested well (which we’ll get to in part 2), you don’t have to worry about the market destroying your savings! You just have to ride out the dips and enjoy the long-term, upward trend. The market is only dangerous if you try to bet and predict it, it becomes your friend when you focus on owning it.
So we looked at the problems with stock picking, market timing and track-record investing. The evidence strongly suggests we should avoid these investing pitfalls. So why do people still engage with them? Many people aren’t familiar with the research, which is an indictment on the investing industry, but the problem goes deeper than that. Even people who understand the research, even people who understand and assent to the research, still don’t consistently comply. Why is this? The industry calls it investor behavior, and it’s big business. I hear a lot about bad investor behavior, but I don’t hear much about why investor behavior is bad, or how to think helpfully about it. Here are a few reasons why I think it’s tough to be a good investor today:
1) The practice of buying low and selling high is ingrained in us. We’re deal shoppers. We see a good deal, something that’s worth more than its sale price, and we can feel great about the purchase. We’ve got TV shows that show us how to buy cheap houses and storage units in order to flip them for a profit. The booming fantasy football business teaches us to perform hours of research before drafting players (no? only me?) in order to find the underpriced guys who will overperform. We’ve got side hustles flipping cars, furniture, clothes, electronics, you name it. We’ve got sale adds spilling out of our mailboxes. That’s just how our world works, we shop for deals, things that are underpriced. Another way to say it, we’re always on the lookout for inefficiencies. But the stock market in not inefficient (see Are you stock picking?). It’s the one place we shop where there are no sales or discounts. It makes sense that we would apply our standard buying principles to investing, but unfortunately, our instincts aren’t helpful here.
2) Active investing feels right. Trading in a portfolio is exciting, especially if you think you’re good at it. A big win in the stock market makes for a really nice adrenaline hit. It’s similar to gambling. You can do it from your favorite chair in your living room, or a bustling coffee shop; it feels meaningful; it provides a perfect excuse to be constantly checking the news; you get to use your favorite tech gadgets (that’s what gets me). And even if you’re not the one making the trades, it just seems responsible to watch the news and track your returns every day. It seems right to talk predictively about the market, to decide on an investing strategy for the upcoming year. We’re not lazy people, we do our due diligence; unfortunately, with investing, we diligently do the wrong things.
3) We’re inundated with encouragement to engage in active investing. Financial news networks and websites were not created to educate their viewership, they exist to drive traffic. Since patience, diversification, minimal trading, (aka the staples of a good investment strategy) are really boring, news outlets lean heavily towards the predictive and active trading slant. Specific stock recommendations and bold market predictions fuel our instinct to do something with our investments. Again, it feels right to try to figure out where the market is going and how to profit from it. The news only tickles that itch.
Investing is counterintuitive and human behavior is often the trickiest part in investing. Sometimes we simply lack the knowledge required to be a good investor, but more often it feels like we should be doing more. When something needs fixing, we put our heads down and figure out how to fix it. Before we decide to buy something we do our research. But the way we make buying decisions in our every-day lives doesn’t work in the stock market. While we constantly look for inefficiencies, sales, discounts, deals, etc., the stock market is efficiently moving along on its unpredictable upwards trend. Instead of working to beat it, let’s ride it.
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.