Why Trying to Time the Market is a Losing Game

The U.S. stock market has returned 282% since bottoming in March 2009, following the Financial Crisis.  Since that time, the S&P 500 Index has delivered positive returns in seven out of the last eight years and appears poised to produce another gain in 2017.  While it’s true that valuation levels are above long-term historical averages, in this email we’ll explore why trying to time the market is a losing game.

As a client you may be concerned that higher stock valuation levels coupled with a long-running bull market could mean an imminent pullback.  If so, you’re not alone.  Many investors have noted that it’s been a while since we’ve had a major stock market correction (defined as a drop of 10% or more).  This makes sense given that historically, the stock market has averaged three pullbacks of about 5% per year, with one of those corrections typically turning into a 10% or greater decline.  While it has been twenty-two months since our last market correction, we’ve seen longer.  Since 1990, we’ve experienced three periods lasting longer than twenty-two months over which markets did not experience a 10% or greater pullback.  So although we’re not in uncharted territory, the historical record suggests we could be closer to a market decline than not.

Given the above facts, clients often ask why we don’t sell stocks and raise cash in order to avoid the next market correction.  It’s a fair question, but when examined more closely we find that it’s a very difficult strategy to implement successfully.

Research has shown that trying to time the market is a losing game.  One reason is that an investor has to accurately predict both when to get out of the market and when to get back in.  While it’s difficult enough to time an exit right, the odds of then correctly calling a market bottom are even lower.  Part of this relates to the nature of market declines.  Looking back to 1945, the average stock market correction has lasted just fourteen weeks.  This suggests that investors who correctly sell their stocks to cash may be sitting on the sidelines when equities surge higher, often without warning.  While moving into cash may avoid some near-term losses, it could come at the higher cost of not participating in significant market upside.

Another reason to avoid market timing relates to the nature of market returns.  History shows that since 1926, U.S. large cap stocks have delivered positive returns slightly more than two thirds of the time.  As a result, you’re much more likely to realize higher long-term gains by remaining fully invested in stocks and weathering some of the market’s admittedly unpleasant downturns.

At Parsec, instead of market timing, we recommend investors stay invested throughout market cycles.  While this can be difficult at times, investing in a well-diversified portfolio has been shown to help mitigate market volatility and provide a slightly smoother ride during market downturns.  This is because portfolios that incorporate a thoughtful mix of asset classes with different correlations can provide the same level of return for a lower level of risk than a concentrated or undiversified portfolio.  It also ensures that investors participate in market gains, which often materialize unexpectedly.

In addition to constructing well-diversified portfolios, we believe in setting and maintaining an appropriate asset allocation based on your financial objectives and risk tolerance.  We then rebalance your portfolio to its target weights on a regular basis.  This increases the odds that you sell high and buy low.

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What’s Ahead for Fixed Income?

After more than thirty years of falling interest rates and thus rising bond prices, yields may be moving higher.  While trends are often short-lived, this new trajectory could persist into 2017 and beyond given recent changes in the political landscape as well as a less accommodative Federal Reserve (Fed).  We’ll take a look at what this new monetary and political environment may mean for bonds and how to best-position your fixed income portfolio for the long-term.

A proxy for the bond market, the 10-year Treasury note yield hit an historical low of 1.36% in July 2016 only to jump 100 basis points (or 1%) by the end of November.  The move came as investors responded favorably to the surprise U.S. Presidential and Congressional election results, in anticipation of higher growth levels in the years to come.

Part of the optimism stemmed from the new administration’s promise to cut consumer and corporate taxes and spend on infrastructure projects.  This picture presents a mixed bag for bonds, however.  Increased fiscal spending and lower taxes are positive for economic growth and a healthy economy is generally good for lending and credit activity.  But stronger economic growth would push yields higher and thus bond prices lower.  On the other hand, higher yields would provide investors with higher current income, acting as a partial offset to lower bond prices.  Rising interest rates or yields would also allow investors to reinvest into higher-yielding bonds.

Duration is an important characteristic to consider when reinvesting at higher yields.  A bond’s duration is the length of time it takes an investor to recoup his or her investment.  It also determines how much a bond’s price will fall when yields rise.  Longer duration bonds such as Treasury or corporate bonds with long maturities experience sharper price declines when yields rise.  Likewise, shorter duration bonds are less volatile and will exhibit smaller price declines, all else being equal.  Because we can’t predict the exact direction or speed of interest rate changes, it’s important to have exposure to bonds with a mix of durations.  In this way an investor is able to respond to any given environment.  For example, when yields are rising, an investor can sell her shorter-duration bonds, which are less susceptible to prices changes, and reinvest into longer-duration bonds with higher rates.

Another factor that affects bond prices is inflation.  Inflation expectations have started to heat up in light of low unemployment, wage growth, and expectations for increased government stimulus.  Higher inflation could also put upward pressure on interest rates and thus downward pressure on bond prices.  While inflation can erode the real returns of many bonds, some bonds, such as Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS), stand to benefit.  TIPS are indexed to inflation and backed by the U.S. government.  Whenever inflation rises, the principal amount of TIPS gets adjusted higher.  This in turn leads to a higher interest payment because a TIPS coupon is calculated based on the principal amount.

Finally, the Federal Reserve’s shift away from accommodative monetary policy will have an impact on bond prices.  Although higher interest rates from the Fed will likely pressure fixed income prices, overall we view this change favorably.  This is because a return to more normal interest rate levels is critical to the functioning of large institutions like insurance companies and banks, which play a key role in our society.  Likewise, higher interest rates will provide more income to the millions of Baby Boomers starting to retire and would help stabilize struggling pension plans at many companies.

Taken altogether and in light of an uncertain environment, we believe a diversified bond portfolio targeted to meet your specific fixed income needs is the best way to weather this changing yield environment.  In addition to considering your specific income objectives, our Investment Policy Committee meets regularly to assess the current economic, fiscal, and monetary environment.  We adjust our asset allocation targets in order to take advantage of attractive opportunities or reduce exposure to higher-risk (over-valued) areas.  While we may over-weight some areas or under-weight others, in the long-run we continue to believe that a well-diversified portfolio is the best way to weather any market environment.

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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Implications for “Brexit”

Investors received surprising news this morning, as the United Kingdom (U.K.) voted to leave the European Union (EU).  While markets will no doubt experience increased volatility in the coming weeks, longer-term, we believe the negative impact of “Brexit” will be largely contained to Great Britain and Europe.

Trade accounts for about 40% of the U.K.’s gross domestic product (GDP), with most of those exports and imports tied to EU partners.  As a result of the recent vote, Britain is likely to see higher trade tariffs from the EU and more trade staying within continental Europe’s borders.  Both of these shifts could weigh significantly on Britain’s economic growth in the mid-term and would likely weigh on EU growth as well.  One positive is that the U.K. never adopted the Euro, choosing instead to maintain the British Pound as its currency.  This is should make an exit from the EU smoother and slightly less costly than if they had converted to the Euro, and suggests it could be less detrimental than if Greece had left.

While the U.K. is likely to experience the largest negative impact by leaving the EU, continental Europe is also at risk given its relatively fragile economic expansion following the Financial Crisis of 2008-2009.  From 2010 through 2015, EU GDP has grown at an average rate of just 1.2% compared to U.K. GDP growth of 2.0%.  Thus any major shock, such as one of its strongest members leaving the Block, could derail those modest growth levels.

Turning to the U.S., Europe is one of our larger trade partners with about 16% of total U.S. exports going to the Block last year.  This is not an insignificant number, and will likely weigh on U.S. GDP growth in the near-term.  However, the U.S. consumer remains the largest driver of our economy, accounting for about two-thirds of GDP growth.  Following the Financial Crisis of 2008-2009, the U.S. consumer has gotten healthier, supported by an expanding housing market, strong jobs growth, and deleveraging.  A resilient consumer and relatively better economic growth compared to the rest of the world should position us to better weather the recent developments in Europe.

To be sure, today’s news surprised investors and markets alike.  Although the near-term economic impact will likely be limited to the U.K. and Europe, the vote has broader implications for the future of the European Union.  While we can’t predict the longer-term repercussions of today’s historical vote, we can assure you of the benefits of staying invested in a diversified portfolio over the long-term.  Markets will experience sharp corrections, as well as strong rallies, yet clients who remain invested across asset classes throughout the market cycle have a better chance of reaching their financial goals.  With this perspective in mind, market declines like the one we’re seeing today simply represent an excellent opportunity to rebalance your portfolio at more attractive valuations levels.

 

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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