Don't Time the Market, Spend More Time in It

If you are educated about the stock market, the term “timing the market” probably sounds familiar. It refers to the idea that investors should buy stocks low and sell them high shortly after. It's a smart, swift, and painless method...or is it?

You might compare this method to switching lines at the supermarket checkout when you see another one moving faster. That is, it was moving faster until you decided to change lines.Trying to time things out of your control so they work in your favor sometimes works, and sometimes it doesn't. Either way, it's very hard to predict.

There are too many factors influencing the price of stocks and bonds; trying to predict what the market is going to do is extremely difficult. A smarter approach is to spend more time in the market by holding long-term investments rather than trying to time the market.

The Investing Strategy Myth

A common myth about investing is success is all about strategy, like timing the market. This myth is one reason why many people fear investing: they think it's only for experts who have learned systems and charts and spend all their time studying the markets and poring over reports. While timing the market is a novel idea, even professional traders, with all the training, tools and time at their disposal, regularly post losses. Some perform well for a while, but it's very difficult to consistently win over the long term. (For related reading, see: Market Timing Fails as a Money Maker.)

Nevertheless, there is no shortage of people who claim to know how to beat the odds. You'll find dozens of stock alert services on the internet, all offering to help you with timing the market. Be warned: if you are not an expert, the odds are very much stacked against you.

Go Long-Term Instead

On the other hand, if you study the Dow Jones Industrial Average you'll find there's never been a 20-year period during which the index has failed to grow. It moves up and down a lot, but investors willing to take a longer-term approach, an approach called buy and hold, have historically seen positive gains regardless of day-to-day market volatility.

Longer-term approaches are a better strategy. JP Morgan compiled some research showing the importance of this. They tracked the performance of a $10,000 investment in the S&P 500 over a 20-year period. It showed a healthy average return of 9.85% per year. But they modeled what would happen if the investor withdrew from the market temporarily and missed the 10 biggest days on the stock market for that 20-year period (just 10 days out of 7,304). The result was a reduced return from 9.85% to 6.1%, which means a decrease of $32,665 in gains. And the more days missed, the lower the gains fell.

Nobel laureate William Sharpe found that "market timers" must be right an incredible 82% of the time just to match the returns realized by buy-and-hold investors. 

3 Quick Tips for Portfolio Success

  1. Get sound advice. Even if you've decided to buy and hold, you still need to know which investment opportunities are proven performers with a likelihood of continued strength. The right advisor will also help you to wisely diversify your holdings.
  2. Practice faith, patience and discipline. Markets rise and fall continuously, and when they're down it can be tempting to pull out. Commit to your long-term strategy, and stay the course.
  3. Tune out the hype. If you watch the markets every day and read all the opinions, it will drive you crazy.

Patience Pays Off

The tactics of timing the market are fraught with danger; history vouches for the fact that "time in the market" is the safer strategy. When it comes to your financial success, it pays to invest your time, not just your money, in your portfolio.

(For more from this author, see: Investing: Understanding a Sideways Market.)