Riding all of the stock market’s ups – and none of its downs – is a popular fantasy. Who wouldn’t want to skip rough patches such as early 2018, late 2015 or all of 2008?
Alas, it’s impossible. Even the greatest investors are wrong maybe a third of the time.
But here’s some good news: You don’t need perfect timing to achieve marvelous returns. Time in the market beats timing the market – almost always.
Why? Consider three make-believe siblings, each with $10,000 to invest in U.S. stocks each year from 1977 to 2018 – a stretch that includes five bear markets.
Pretend they bought the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index (broader than the Dow).
Janette, with perfect timing, invests at each year’s monthly market low, earning each year’s full upside. Jebediah, a terrible timer, invests at each year’s monthly market high, missing more gains and capturing more downside. Jackpot, the clever youngest brother, knows he has no timing ability. He invests the first day of each year.
Fast-forward to June 2018. Janette’s 41 years of perfect timing earned an average annual return of 11.4 percent for a cool $8.2 million. No-timing Jackpot was close behind, with an 11.1 percent return and $7.8 million – still great. Even terrible-timing Jebediah got a 10.8 percent return – turning his $410,000 in contributions into $6.7 million. Sure, it's rewarding enough, but lagging little brother, no-timing Jackpot by $1.1 million is a high price to pay for bad timing.
Being Janette is impossible. Even trying to be Janette runs the risk of becoming Jebediah – or worse. Fancy timing increases the likelihood of errors.People want to buy after stocks rise, not after they drop. Were you eagerly buying this March, when the early-year correction avalanched? Or in February 2016 as headlines hyped election risks at the bottom of an eight-month slide? Or in March 2009 at the depths of the financial crisis? As I said last week, the best time to buy is surely when people least want to.
But time overwhelmingly swamps timing, good or bad. How so?
Consider Jill and Joaquin. Jill invests $10,000 in U.S. stocks each year, starting in 1977. Like Jebediah, Jill has terrible timing, buying at each year’s monthly market high. Then, Jill stops contributing after 10 years, stops trading and just lets her S&P 500 stocks ride. Meanwhile, procrastinating Joaquin waits till 1987 to start investing his $10,000 annually. Yet Joaquin has perfect timing and, unlike Jill, keeps adding $10,000 every year through 2018. Surely this deck must be stacked against Jill.
No. Even with poor timing, Jill turned her $100,000 in contributions to $216,576 in stocks by the time Joaquin invests his first $10,000. Her head start more than offsets Joaquin’s perfect timing and greater total contributions. In June 2018, she has just over $5 million. Joaquin has less than half that, around $2.1 million. Jill’s compound time-in-the-market growth trounced Joaquin’s perfect timing.
Think you’d never be Joaquin? As I wrote last month, many investors left stocks after the financial crisis and stayed away for years. Many still haven’t returned. Yet since the March 9, 2009, low, U.S. stocks are up 419 percent with dividends. Since the precrisis peak? Up 132 percent. You didn’t need marvelous timing to come out ahead.
Remember these examples the next time markets sag and you want to bail – or the next time you have cash you’re waiting to invest. Is your desire to avoid bad times worth the risk of being Jebediah or Joaquin?
Author: Keneth Fisher