Market timing attempts to predict the direction of future market movements in order to buy low and sell high. It is a strategy that most professional investors rely on and most other investors hope to replicate. Interestingly, it's also a strategy that has negative connotations for many investors. Have you ever wondered whether you could make money as a day trader? Read on as we cover the controversy behind this strategy.
At the academic level, the very concept of market timing is called into question by those who believe in the efficient market theory. This theory is based on the premise that, at any given time, prices fully reflect all available information on a particular stock and/or market. Thus, no investor has an advantage in predicting a return on a stock price because no one has access to information not already available to everyone else. (Check out What Is Market Efficiency? to read arguments for and against this theory.)
Outside of academia, the controversy surrounding market timing is primarily focused on day trading conducted by individual investors and the mutual fund trading scandals perpetrated by institutional investors in 2003. Media coverage of these issues has been so prevalent that many investors now dismiss market timing as a credible investment strategy. Because the popular media has a significantly greater audience among investors than most academics do, the image the popular media has created for market timing provides a good spot to begin an exploration of the topic. (To learn more, read Day Trading: An Introduction.)
Day trading sits at the extreme end of the investing spectrum from conventional buy-and-hold wisdom. It is the ultimate market-timing strategy. While all the attention that day trading attracts seems to suggest that the theory is sound, critics argue that, if that were so, at least one famous money manager would have mastered the system and claimed the title of "the Warren Buffet of day trading". (To read about more great investors and their strategies, see The Greatest Investors tutorial.)
The long list of successful investors that have become legends in their own time does not include a single individual that built his or her reputation by day trading. Even Michael Steinhardt, who made his fortune trading in time horizons ranging from 30 minutes to 30 days, claimed to take a long-term perspective on his investment decisions. From an economic perspective, many professional money managers and financial advisors shy away from day trading, arguing that the reward simply does not justify the risk. (To learn more, read Market Timing Fails As A Money Maker.)
Legality, Ethics and Mutual Fund Scandals
Despite the controversy, market timing is neither illegal nor unethical. Attempting to make a profit is the reason investors invest, and timing your purchases and sales so that you buy low and sell high is the general goal of most investors (although short-selling and arbitrage take a different approach, the success or failure of these strategies still depends on timing).
The problems with mutual fund trading that cast market timing in a negative light occurred because the prospectuses written by the mutual fund companies strictly forbid short-term trading. Despite this prohibition, special clients were allowed to do it anyway. So, the problem was not with the trading strategy but rather with the unethical and unfair implementation of that strategy, which permitted some investors to engage in it while excluding others. (To learn more, read A Brief History Of The Mutual Fund.)
The Professional Approach
All of the world's greatest investors rely, to some extent, on market timing for their success. Whether they base their buy/sell decisions on fundamental analysis of the markets, technical analysis of individual companies, personal intuition, or all of the above, the ultimate reason for their success involves making the right trades at the right time. In most cases, those decisions involve extended periods of time and are based on buy-and-hold investment strategies.
Value investing is a clear example, as the strategy is based on buying stocks that trade for less than their intrinsic values and selling them when their value is recognized in the marketplace. Most value investors are known for their patience, as undervalued stocks often remain undervalued for significant periods of time.
To Time or Not to Time?
If your goal is to buy low and sell high, you are market timing. As noted above, it is very difficult to be successful at short-term market timing over an extended period of time. The average investor doesn't have the time (or desire) to watch the market on a daily basis and will be far better served by a focus on long-term investing instead of trying to guess the direction of the market on a daily basis. When the costs and risks are factored into the equation, even most professional investors prefer to stretch their investment horizons over a longer time frame. It is far easier to be successful if you purchase an investment and hold it until the price rises, regardless of how long it takes, than to purchase an investment at 9am and hope to make a profit just a few hours later.