Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Once Burned, Twice Shy

Bert Whitehead, M.B.A., J.D.

Investors are feeling almost euphoric. While the market hasn’t rebounded to a Dow topping 14,000 (where it was in Oct, 2007), it is up 58% flirting with 10,000 from the 6,500 bottom we experienced on March 9th of this year. This sharp rebound is a relief but can be scary in its own right.

SELL NOW! Many investment gurus are predicting another round of market
setbacks. P/E ratios (i.e. the relationship of earnings to the price of stocks) are high at about 20. (15 is considered normal.) Their observations focus on the negative realities we are still experiencing, such as unemployment, the housing collapse, and unprecedented government spending and impending inflation. The ‘smart money,’ they say, is going into hibernation or reinvesting in exotic currency and commodity offerings.

BUY, BUY, BUY! Other investment mavens are optimistic. On this side the ‘smart money’ notes that the steepest market drops are historically followed by higher and higher stock prices. The market is a leading indicator and is looking ahead 9-18 months. The stage is set for a global recovery and owning stocks is the place to be.

Who can you believe? Keep two things in mind: 1) the ‘smart money’ in both groups represents only 5% of the traders but accounts for 95% of the stock transactions every day, and 2) every day a ‘survey’ is taken, and 50% of the ‘smart money’ thinks the market is going up while the other half thinks it’s going down. It has to be that way, because for every buyer there must be a seller – and one of them is wrong!

It is enticing to try to forecast what will happen next, and the experts can be very convincing. Usually they focus on one or two factors that support their conclusion, and their position appeals to one of the two most dangerous emotions for investors: Fear and Greed.

Fear made some people jump out of the market at the end of last year or the start of this year. They panicked and sold all of their stocks. Perhaps they felt burned, yet satisfied knowing that they were ‘right’ as the market tumbled downward until March 9. Now many of them are kicking themselves for turning shy and not getting back in as they watched stock prices spiral upward. They wonder if they should buy back into the market now is it too late? Is the market due for a correction?

This is the market timer’s dilemma: they first have to decide when to sell. Then they have to decide when to get back in. So both decisions have to be right. Statistically, they will get both right 25% of the time; the other 75% of the time they will make an error.

If Greed wins out and they put everything back in the market now, they run a 50% chance of being ‘whipsawed.’ As soon as they buy back in, the market nosedives. So their Fear kicks into gear and they sell out again and take a large loss to avoid a huge loss. Then, of course, stocks skyrocket. I have experienced this myself. It is a very depressing experience.

Market timers can get so caught up in their timing schemes that the market takes over their whole lives. They constantly watch ‘the market’ and listen to talking heads expound while reading about the latest investment fad. In the end, they would be better off financially and emotionally if they had a clear plan and stuck to it.

We use Functional Asset Allocation, an investment strategy format that is designed for real people. It incorporates real estate as well as stocks and bonds/cash. We seek to balance the portfolio in relation to total net worth, rather than try to time the market. As we balance our clients’ investments, we want to lower their investment costs, reduce the overall volatility of the portfolio, and, especially, make their portfolio tax efficient. We make decisions about things we can control by understanding the difference between what is certain and what is speculation. We position clients to enjoy a ‘market rate of return.’

By using a 15year bond ladder with Treasury bonds, we provide clients with a safety net so they don’t have to time their investing activity. They keep their real estate, even when the market tanks. They continue to dollar cost average into the stock market when it falls and rises. By maintaining a balanced portfolio, our clients are always positioned for any economic environment. They have investments to hedge against inflation, deflation and to participate when prosperity returns.

An investment advisor once commented to me that we could get a much higher rate of return by using municipal bonds and junk bonds instead of U.S. Treasuries. I acknowledged that, if an investor can time interest rates successfully over a long period of time, the gains might offset the extra taxes and transaction costs involved. But I explained that all our clients need to do is to get a market rate of return. We don’t take the extra risks that are required to try to ‘beat the market.’ We sell sleep.

You may be a bit shy about getting back into the stock market now because you got burned badly during the last downturn, which was the worst in the last 50 years. The key to not getting burned is to adjust your expectations and have a balanced portfolio that is geared for your particular situation. It’s the best way to experience the rewards of long-term investing and protect yourself against emotion-induced investment losses.

I appreciate the editorial review contributed by Chip Simon, CFP®, an ACA colleague in Poughkeepsie, NY.

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