Market timing means moving in and out of the market or between assets based on a prediction of what the market will do. Given the extreme difficulty of predicting the future, market timing is frowned upon by most academics. Many studies have shown that the majority of investors who time the market under-perform those who stay invested.
Even though many people know intellectually that market timing is detrimental, it is actually pretty difficult to stay invested and not be influenced by market timing. Even for those who say they don’t time the market, there are a number of ways that investors inadvertently fall into this trap.
1. Being in Cash. “We are going to sit on X% in cash and wait for a buying opportunity.” Seems prudent, right? Except that investors who have been holding out for a 10% or 20% crash for two, three, four years or more have missed out on a huge move up in the market. Yes, there are rational reasons to say that the market is expensive today, but those who have been sitting in cash have definitely under-performed. Will they eventually be proved right? The market certainly has cycles of growth and contraction. This is normal and healthy. So, yes, there will be another bear market. The problem is that trying to predict when this will occur usually makes returns worse rather than better.
2. Greed and Fear. The human inclination is to want to invest when the market has done well and to sell when the market is in the doldrums. I remember investors who insisted in going to cash in November 2008 and March 2009, right at the bottom. In 1999, people were borrowing money to put into tech funds, which had given them returns of 30%, 50%, even 100% in a year. Our natural reaction is to buy high and sell low, the opposite of what we should be doing. It’s only in hindsight that we recognize these trades as mistakes.
3. Performance Chasing. Investors like to switch from Fund A to Fund B when Fund A does better. Who wouldn’t want to be in the better fund? This is why people give up on index funds. Index funds often only beat half of their peers in any given year, so it’s super easy to find a fund that is doing better. However, when we go to a five-year horizon, index funds are winning 80-90% of the time. That’s why switching to a fund with a better recent track record is often a mistake. (And then watch the fund you just sold soar…)
4. Sector and Country funds. Investors want to buy a sector or country fund when it is a standout. This is market timing! You are buying what is hot (expensive) rather than buying what is on sale. I have yet to have any client ever come to me and say “sector X is doing terrible, should we buy?”. Instead, some will ask me about biotech, or India, or some other high flyer. I remember when the ING Russia fund had the best 10-year track record of all mutual funds. If you bought it then, I think you would have regretted it immensely in the following years! When people buy sector or country funds, the decision is almost always a market timing error of extrapolating recent performance into the future, instead of recognizing that today’s leaders become tomorrow’s laggards.
5. Factor Investing. If you haven’t heard of Factor Funds, you will soon! Quantitative analysts look for a set of criteria which they can feed into a computer and it picks the best performing stocks. How do they come up with a winning formula? By back-testing strategies using historical stock prices. This sounds very scientific, and I admit that it looks promising, but there are still some market timing landmines for investors, including:
- Historical anomalies. It’s possible that a strategy that worked great over the past 10 years might be a dud over the next 10. It is unknown which factors will perform best going forward and it seems naive to assume that the future will be the same as the past.
- Choosing which factor. Low Volatility? Value? Momentum? Quality? Those all sound like good things. There are now so many flavors of factors, you have to have an opinion on the market in order to pick which factor will outperform. And that’s right back to market timing: investing based on your prediction of what the market will do. This isn’t Lake Woebegone, where all the factors are above average. Some factors are bound to do poorly for longer than you are likely to be willing to hold them.
- Investor switching. In most single years, a factor does not have very exciting performance. I predict that many investors are going to buy a factor fund, and then switch when they see another factor outperform for a year or two. If you’re really going to buy into the factor philosophy, you need to buy and hold for many, many years. Even in back tests, there are quite a few years of under-performance. It was only over long time periods that factors were able to deliver improved returns.
6. Product development. Asset managers are paid on the assets they manage. It’s a business. They will always be coming out with a new, better product to attract new investors. You are being marketed to every day by companies who want your investment dollar. Many new funds will not survive the test of time and will disappear into financial history. Their poor track records will be erased from Morningstar, which is why we have “survivorship bias”, the fact that we only see the track records of the funds that survive. Please use caution when investing in a new fund. Is this new fund vital to your success as an investor or just a marketing ploy for a company to capitalize on the most recent fad?
At Good Life Wealth Management, we are fans of the tried and true and skeptical when it comes to the “new and improved”. We aim to avoid market timing errors by remaining invested and not trying to predict the future path of the market. We avoid emotional investing decisions, performance chasing, and sector/country funds. For the time being, we are watching factor funds with curiosity but a wait and see attitude.
How then do we choose investments and their weight in our asset allocation? Our tactical models are based on the valuation of each category. This is by its nature contrarian – when large cap becomes expensive, it becomes smaller in our portfolios. When small cap becomes cheap, its weighting is increased. We don’t predict whether those categories will go up or down in the near future, but only tilt towards the areas of better relative value. This is based on reversion to the mean and the unwavering belief that diversification remains our best defense.
If you’d like to talk about your portfolio, I’d welcome the chance to sit down and share our approach and philosophy. What keeps us from the Siren song of market timing is our belief in a disciplined and patient investment strategy.