Monday, 22 June 2009

Learn from the Worst: The Best Way Not to Miss the Boat - Don't Get Off in the First Place

Many investors, however, either don't expect or just plain cannot tolerate the short-term discomfort of the stock market, and they'll do just about anything to try to avoid it.

Some will ignore stocks altogether, not wanting to deal with the short-term risk involved. Instead, they will put their money into bonds, Treasury bills, or even just keep it in a CD or savings account. After all, while those options don't have nearly the upside of stocks, you can't lose money with them. Or can you?

There are flaws in this logic. The reason: inflation. If, for example, all of your money is in a savings account that is earninng 2% interest per year but inflation is at 3% per year, the relative worth of your money isn't increasing by 2% annually; it's actually declining.

Since, World War II, the threat of infaltion to fixed-income investments has been very real. In his book Contrarian Investment Strategies, Dreman notes that:
  • when adjusted for inflation, stocks returned an average of 7.5% from 1946 to 1996;
  • when also adjusted for inflation, however, bonds had an average annual return of just 0.86%, gold actually declined by 0.13% per year, and T-bills returned just 0.42% annually.

Looked at another way, the average annual T-bill return before inflation was 4.8% during that period, about 2.5 x less than what stocks returned before inflation - not great, but not bad considering that T-bills are essentially risk-free; after inflation is factored in, however, stocks returned about 18x as much as T-bills per year.

Based on information like that, Dreman concluded that inflation was a far greater risk to long-term investors than short-term stock market volatility.

While some will try to avoid short-term market discomfort by avoiding stocks altogether, others, of course, believe they can skirt the stock market's short-term anxiety and still reap the long-term rewards. But much more often than not, they will end up with all the short-term discomfort and none of the long-term gains.

Part of the reason is that, most investors who try to time the market end up buying high and selling low. But there's also another important reason that is critical to understand - the nature of when and how the stock market makes its gains. In a 2007 article for CNNMoney, Jeanne Sahadi touched on this concept.

Citing data from Ibbotson Associates, Sahadi said tha if you had invested $100 in the S&P 500 in 1926, you would have had $307,700 in 2006 - a pretty staggering gain. But if you had been out of the market for the best-performing 40 months of that lengthy 972-month period, you would have had just $1,923 in 2006. That means that 99% of the gains over that 81-year period came in just 4 percent of the months.

The principle holds over shorter periods, as well. If you invested $100 in 1987, you'd have had $931 by the end of 2006, Sahadi noted. But if you were out of the market for the 17 best trading months of that 240-month period, you'd have ended up with just $232. In this case, 84% of the gains came in 7% of the months.

The bottom line: While the market rises substantially over time, much of its increases come on a relatively small portion of trading days - and no one knows for sure when they're going to come. If you jump in and out of the market based on short-term fluctuations you're bound to miss some of those big days - and you can't get them back.

Another point to note. In a market where the vast majority of gains come on a small number of days, you don't just have to be right more than you're wrong if you want to make money timing the market - you have to be right a whole lot more than you're wrong. That's what the research of William Sharpe shows. Sharpe found that in order to make money with a market-timing approach, you need to be right in your timing decisions at least 74% of the time - not just 51% , as many assume. Consider that statistic showed that the most accurate human forecasters were right about 20% of the time - and you see that most market timers won't even come close to succeeding.

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