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Market strategies - Time vs. timing

In this article
  • Why Market Timing is risky
  • Buy and hold is probably your best strategy
  • The power of compounding
  • The importance of reevaluating

Sports commentators often predict the big winners at the start of a season, only to see their forecasts fade away as their chosen teams lose. Similarly, market timers often try to predict big wins in the investment markets, only to be disappointed by the reality of unexpected turns in performance. For those who do not wish to subject their money to such a potentially risky strategy, time -- not timing -- could be the best alternative.

What is market timing?

Market timing is a strategy in which the investor tries to identify the best times to be in the market and when to get out. Relying heavily on forecasts and market analysis, market timing is often utilized by brokers, financial analysts, and mutual fund portfolio managers to attempt to reap the greatest rewards for their clients.

Proponents of market timing say that successfully forecasting the ebbs and flows of the market can result in higher returns than other strategies. Their specific tactics for pursuing success can range from what some have termed "pure timers" to "active strategic allocation."

Pure timing requires the investor to determine when to move 100% in or 100% out of one of the three asset classes -- stocks, bonds, and money markets. Perhaps the riskiest of market timing strategies, pure timing also calls for nearly 100% accurate forecasting, something nobody can claim.

On the other hand, dynamic asset allocators shift their portfolio's weights -- or redistribute their assets among the various classes -- based on expected market movements and the probability of return versus risk on each asset class. Professional mutual fund managers who manage asset allocation funds often use this strategy in attempting to meet their funds' objectives.

Risks of timing the market

Although professionals may be able to use market timing to reap rewards, one of the biggest risks of this "strategy" is potentially missing the market's best-performing cycles. For example, suppose an investor, believing the market will go down, removes his investment dollars and places them in more conservative investments. While the money is out of stocks, the market instead can enjoy its best-performing month. The investor has, therefore, incorrectly timed the market and "missed" those top months. That is why perhaps the best move for most individual investors -- especially those striving toward long-term goals -- might be to purchase shares and hold on to them throughout market cycles. This is commonly known as a "buy-and-hold" strategy.

The Potential Risk Of Missing Out**
  A B C
  1986-2015 1996-2015 2006-2015
[1] Untouched $19,325 $4,825 $2,024
[2] Miss 10 Top-Performing Months $7,427 $2,048 $939
[3] Miss 20 Top-Performing Months $3,491 $1,037 $583
Perhaps the most significant risk of market timing is missing out on the market's best-performing cycles. Columns A, B, and C represent the growth of a $1,000 investment beginning in 1986, 1996, and 2006, and ending December 31, 2015. Row 1 shows the investment if left untouched for the entire period shown above; Row 2 shows the investment if it was pulled out during the 10 top-performing months; and Row 3 shows the investment if it was pulled out during the 20 top-performing months.

As seen in the above table, purchasing investments and then withstanding the market's ups and downs can often work to your advantage. Though past performance cannot guarantee future results, missing the top 20 months in the 30-year period ending December 31, 2015, could have cost you $15,834 in potential earnings on a $1,000 investment in Standard & Poor's Composite Index of 500 Stocks (S&P 500). Also consider a $1,000 investment made in 1996 that was left untouched through 2015 -- it could have grown to $4,825. But missing only the top 20 months in that 240-month span could have cut your accumulated wealth to $1,037.*

Though many debate the success of market timing versus a buy-and-hold strategy, forecasting the market undoubtedly requires the kind of expertise that portfolio managers use on a daily basis. Individual investors might best leave market timing to the experts -- and focus instead on their personal financial goals.

Total Annual Returns of The S&P 500
Source: ChartSource®, Wealth Management Systems Inc. For the period from January 1, 2006, through December 31, 2015. Stocks are represented by the S&P 500 index. Average is calculated using full calendar years only. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. It is not possible to invest directly in an index. Copyright © 2016, DST Systems, Inc. All rights reserved. Not responsible for any errors or omissions. (CS000141)

Compounding: Time can work for you

If you're not a professional money manager, your best bet is probably to buy and hold. Through a buy-and-hold strategy, you take advantage of the power of compounding, or the potential for your invested money to make money. Even Albert Einstein took notice of compounding. When asked what was the most important thing he learned from mathematics, he replied, "Compound interest. It's the most powerful force on earth." The compounding power of investments can also help manage risk over time.

Reevaluate your portfolio regularly

Buy and hold, however, doesn't mean ignoring your investments. Remember to give your portfolio regular checkups, as your investment needs will change over time. Annual reviews may be enough to help ensure that the investments you select will keep you on track toward meeting your goals.

For example, a young investor will probably begin investing for longer-term goals such as marriage, buying a house, and even retirement. The majority of his or her portfolio may be in stocks and stock funds, as history shows they have offered the best potential for growth over time, even though they have also experienced the widest short-term fluctuations.* As our young investor ages and gets closer to each goal, he or she will want to revisit the portfolio to rebalance assets as his or her financial needs warrant.

* Source: Standard & Poor's. Stocks are represented by Standard & Poor's Composite Index of 500 Stocks, an unmanaged index generally considered representative of the U.S. stock market. Individuals cannot invest in indexes. Index performance results do not take into account the fees and expenses of the individual investments that are tracked. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. This example does not represent the performance of a specific investment.

This hypothetical investor knows that how much time is available plays an important role when determining asset choice. Most experts agree that generally, a portfolio made up primarily of the "riskier" stock funds (e.g., growth, small-cap) may be best for those saving for goals more than five years away. On the other side, investors nearing retirement, or saving for shorter-term goals, or those who see a possible need for cash in the near future, might consider a portfolio weighted toward money market instruments.** Remember, though, that because people are often living 20 years or more beyond their last official paycheck, even those enjoying retirement should consider the potential inflation-beating benefits as well as the risks of stocks and stock mutual funds.

**An investment in a money market fund is not insured or guaranteed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or any other government agency. Although the fund seeks to preserve the value of your investment at $1.00 per share, it is possible to lose money by investing in the fund.

Time can be on your side

Clearly, time can be a better ally than timing. The best approach to your portfolio is to arm yourself with all the necessary information, and then as necessary take your questions to a financial professional to help with the final decision making. Above all, remember that your investment decisions -- both long- and short-term -- should be based on your financial needs and your ability to accept the risks that go along with each investment. Your financial professional can help you determine which investments are right for you.

© 2016 DST Systems, Inc. All rights reserved.

This content is provided for informational purposes only. We encourage you to seek personalized advice from qualified professionals regarding all personal finance issues. 

Please be advised that this document is not intended as legal or tax advice.  Accordingly, any tax information provided in this document is not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, by any taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed on the taxpayer.  The tax information was written to support the promotion or marketing of the transaction(s) or matter(s) addressed and you should seek advice based on your particular circumstances from an independent tax advisor.

AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company (New York, NY) issues life insurance and annuity products. Securities offered through AXA Advisors, LLC, member FINRA, SIPC.  AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company and AXA Advisors are affiliated and do not provide tax or legal advice.

GE 90982 (01/2016)