“Sell in May and go away” is the Wall Street market timing strategy that suggests investors are better off in cash during the hotter months of the year. The idea is that traders, money managers, and bankers all leave the city to escape the heat of the summer. It has been hot this summer but US stocks haven’t taken any time off as the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed above 27,000 and the S&P 500 briefly broke through the 3000 point level for the first time ever this week.
While the benefits of trying to time the market with a calendar are dubious, it has been my observation that summer isn’t the season that folks are most inclined to discuss their investments and financial plans. I have fewer appointments, my phone doesn’t ring as often, and emails aren’t returned as quickly this time of year. While it’s common for people to ask me about my opinions on the stock market at holiday parties, almost no one asks at the ballpark or the lake. Normally those conversations are about travel plans, rain, or how the BBQ was cooked. Recently, however, I’ve found my poolside discussions increasingly are about whether now is a good time to buy stocks or if recent highs mean a downturn is right around the corner.
When the market gets hot, it doesn’t matter what the season is. The appeal of getting in at the right time or avoiding the next downturn can tempt even the most disciplined, long-term investors. The reality of successfully timing markets, however, isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.
Outguessing The Market Is Difficult
Attempting to buy individual stocks or make tactical asset allocation changes at exactly the “right” time presents investors with substantial challenges. First and foremost, markets are fiercely competitive and adept at processing information. During 2018, a daily average of $462.8 billion in equity trading took place around the world.1 The combined effect of all this buying and selling is that available information, from economic data to investor preferences and so on, is quickly incorporated into market prices. Trying to time the market based on an article from this morning’s newspaper or a segment from financial television? It’s likely that information is already reflected in prices by the time an investor can react to it.
Dimensional recently studied the performance of actively managed mutual funds and found that even professional investors have difficulty beating the market: over the last 20 years, 77% of equity funds and 92% of fixed income funds failed to survive and outperform their benchmarks after costs.2
Further complicating matters, for investors to have a shot at successfully timing the market, they must make the call to buy or sell stocks correctly not just once, but twice. Professor Robert Merton, a Nobel laureate, said it well in a recent interview:
“Timing markets is the dream of everybody. Suppose I could verify that I’m a .700 hitter in calling market turns. That’s pretty good; you’d hire me right away. But to be a good market timer, you’ve got to do it twice. What if the chances of me getting it right were independent each time? They’re not. But if they were, that’s 0.7 times 0.7. That’s less than 50-50. So, market timing is horribly difficult to do.”
Time And The Market
The S&P 500 Index has logged an incredible decade. Should this result impact investors’ allocations to equities? Exhibit 1 suggests that new market highs have not been a harbinger of negative returns to come. The S&P 500 went on to provide positive average annualized returns over one, three, and five years following new market highs.
Exhibit 1. Average Annualized Returns After New Market Highs S&P 500, January 1926–December 2018
Outguessing markets is more difficult than many investors might think. While favorable timing is theoretically possible, there isn’t much evidence that it can be done reliably, even by professional investors. The positive news is that investors don’t need to be able to time markets to have a good investment experience. Over time, capital markets have rewarded investors who have taken a long-term perspective and remained disciplined in the face of short-term noise. By focusing on the things they can control (like having an appropriate asset allocation, diversification, and managing expenses, turnover, and taxes) investors can better position themselves to make the most of what capital markets have to offer.
If now is a good time to discuss your plan, get in touch.
1 In US dollars. Source: Dimensional, using data from Bloomberg LP. Includes primary and secondary exchange trading volume globally for equities. ETFs and funds are excluded. Daily averages were computed by calculating the trading volume of each stock daily as the closing price multiplied by shares traded that day. All such trading volume is summed up and divided by 252 as an approximate number of annual trading days.
2 Mutual Fund Landscape 2019.
Adapted from Dimensional Fund Advisors July Issue Brief. Indices are not available for direct investment. Their performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the management of an actual portfolio. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Diversification does not eliminate the risk of market loss. There is no guarantee investment strategies will be successful. Investing involves risks, including possible loss of principal. Investors should talk to their financial advisor prior to making any investment decision. There is always the risk that an investor may lose money. A long-term investment approach cannot guarantee a profit. All expressions of opinion are subject to change. This article is distributed for informational purposes, and it is not to be construed as an offer, solicitation, recommendation, or endorsement of any particular security, products, or services. Robert Merton provides consulting services to Dimensional Fund Advisors LP.