Is now the right time to get into the markets?
With risk assets having pushed into bear market territory in May, some investors are asking whether now is the right time to get into the markets. On one side of this debate is a group of investors who look at the recent pullback as an opportunity to buy securities at a discount. On the other side is a set of investors concerned that prices will only move lower from here. Make no mistake, this question is relevant to investors today not only because of the magnitude but also because of the breadth of recent market declines.
For example, if we consider year-to-date performance for the S&P 500 index, what we find is that the first one hundred days of this year’s market performance have been brutal. Indeed, through the end of May, the data show that U.S. Large Cap stocks have had their worst year-to-date decline in the past forty years. Adding insult to injury, investors have had little place to hide given the fact that stocks and bonds across U.S. and international asset classes have all posted losses this year.
So, why are markets selling off across the board? Well, the reasons behind this seemingly correlated selloff across major asset classes are manifold. But at its core, persistently high inflation and the prospects for an impending U.S. recession given ongoing logistics issues, healthcare concerns, and the war in Eastern Europe have made market participants more sensitive to the effects of less favorable central bank policy and the weaker corporate earnings outlook.
Now, in the past, market participants could look to policymakers to bolster the economy and markets when similar weak or uncertain macroeconomic conditions were present as they did back in 2020. But today, that story has changed. With headline inflation well above 8% this year, Federal Reserve policymakers are keen to continue raising interest rates, even if that means forcing the U.S. economy into a recession.
At the same time, businesses likely will find it increasingly challenging to keep passing along rising prices to consumers as wage growth has failed to keep up with inflation and household pocketbooks become increasingly stretched.
With the economic backdrop poised to weaken, and asset prices declining across the board, is now the right time to get into the markets? Well, with market sentiment being driven by the macro narrative, it can be argued that current economic conditions depend on many factors for which we yet have little clarity. For example, can the world avoid massive food shortages this year and next with a war raging in Ukraine? And, has inflation peaked, and if so, when will it stabilize enough for the Fed to stop pushing borrowing costs higher and higher?
While the answers to these questions are debatable, what is clear is that market participants have a host of broad-based macroeconomic concerns that still need to be worked out. And from this perspective, the prospect of continued volatility across asset classes suggests that timing market entry points (whether that’s buying at a discount or avoiding the markets altogether) may be challenging for even the most seasoned investors.
Therefore, in the current environment, we believe that the question investors should be most concerned about is not how to time the markets but rather whether they have an investment process in place to withstand this period of heightened market uncertainty.
Missing the best days in the markets
Indeed, some investors may be enticed to use timing techniques or other short-term strategies in a bid to boost overall returns or to avoid losses completely. Such approaches involve exiting risk assets in anticipation of market moves lower and ratcheting risk back up as market sentiment improves. While such an approach sounds reasonable, getting the timing wrong could be more costly than beneficial.
Well, one analysis shows that over a 20-year period, missing even the 10-best days in the market would have led to returns of more than half the rate of those made by investors who stayed committed to the markets during up and down periods.
How is this possible?
Well, history shows that some of the best days in the markets typically follow the worst selloffs. This insight means that investors who had taken money out of the market in fear of a move lower could miss the beginning of a long-term rally. This reality was evident as recently as the COVID-induced market pullback in early 2020 and the subsequent risk asset rally through the end of 2021.
So, what’s the point?
Well, unless you have the time, inclination, and experience, getting the timing right on a trade in your portfolio because you’re debating whether you should (or shouldn’t) get into the markets may cost you more than it is ultimately worth over the long run.
Finding the winning trade
This timing discussion also raises the question about trying to spot winning and losing trades. This attempt to time the market is especially tempting when yesterday’s winners are beaten down and appear to be deep value opportunities or a bargain-buy.
Another temptation during the market selloff is chasing what appear to be winning asset classes and avoiding those asset classes that appear to be losing trades. The problem with trying to separate winners from losers, notably during a time of heightened market volatility, is that investor sentiment can shift on a dime, leaving many a portfolio in disarray.
Indeed, some data show that today’s best-performing asset class could be tomorrow’s laggard and vice versa.
What’s more, the variability between stocks and bonds and even domiciles like the U.S. versus international investments tend to vary in performance from one year to the next. That’s why an investment portfolio utilizing a diversified asset allocation framework and rebalanced at regular intervals tends to perform more consistently and avoids the wide swings associated with staking a claim in any one asset class. This finding leads us to our final point: a systematic investment process can add more value over time than trying to time the markets.
A systematic process for navigating market uncertainty
To be sure, even some of the best asset managers have had a hard time beating the markets over the past decade, which underscores the importance of a solid investment process. What do we mean by investment process? Simply put, we suggest 1) choosing the right mix of assets for a portfolio that aligns with an investor’s risk tolerances and objectives, 2) putting money to work in the markets in a disciplined manner, 3) rebalancing portfolios at regular intervals, and 4) finally having a cash management process in place.
Diversify your portfolio
Now, a systematic investment process begins with understanding your own tolerance for risk and adding a set of assets to an investment portfolio that that vary with your overall goals and objectives. What does this look like? Well, for investors with a low tolerance for market swings and a near-term need for access to their assets, a conservative allocation would likely reflect a bias toward more bonds and less stocks.
On the other hand, a more aggressive asset allocation framework could be appropriate for investors who can tolerate wide swings in the markets and have a longer investment horizon. Either way, a solid investment process begins with understanding your preference for risk and your overall investment horizon.
The next part of the systematic investment process involves being disciplined with committing capital to an investment portfolio at regular intervals. As we pointed out earlier, trying to time the best and worst days of the markets might have an adverse effect on overall investment performance. To avoid such issues, we recommend dollar cost averaging, or more simply, committing a set sum of money to your investment portfolio on a regular basis.
What does this look like?
If you participate in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, this could involve setting up automatic payroll deductions and having capital committed to your portfolio every pay period regardless of market conditions. Or, a similar approach can be used for after-tax contributions or lump-sum transfers by scheduling cash allocations to your IRA or taxable investment account on a pre-defined schedule. Either way, putting capital to work at set intervals can help reduce cognitive load, simplify decision-making during periods of market volatility and keep your savings goals on track.
Rebalance your portfolio
Another step in the systematic investment process is portfolio rebalancing. Now, rebalancing is essential because, over time, the values of various assets within a portfolio will drift away from their initial allocations as markets move up and down. The purpose, then, of rebalancing is to realign portfolio holdings with their target allocations.
So, when should you rebalance?
Rebalancing can occur 1) on a set schedule, 2) when asset values drift by a certain threshold, or 3) in a combination of the two. For example, rebalancing on a set schedule could involve evaluating portfolio holdings quarterly, partially selling positions that have appreciated, and adding to allocations that have underperformed during that period.
Alternatively, using a threshold to rebalance could involve using a decision rule that prompts a rebalance only when the value of a specific asset class is a set percentage above or below its target allocation. This process could lead to less frequent rebalancing during flat markets but more rebalancing during periods of heightened market volatility.
Finally, if you’re in the distribution phase of your investment journey, or in other words, dependent on your savings to pay for your living expenses, then cash management is essential for navigating market volatility without missing out on the best days in the market.
Now, a solid cash management technique ensures that you have access to enough liquid assets in your retirement portfolio to cover between 12-18 months of living expenses. Such investments can include money market mutual funds, and the purpose of this approach is to give your savings enough of a runway to avoid having to sell assets at an inopportune time when the markets begin to sell-off.
When it comes down to it, asking whether now is the time to get into the markets often misses the point of what it means to be a long-term investor. To be sure, trying to time the markets and hoping to find the next “fat pitch” or winning trade are demeanors often associated with speculative behavior. And, as we have pointed out earlier, such behavior can lead to unfavorable investment outcomes over the long term.
That’s why during times like the present, we challenge investors to ask themselves whether the decisions they are making are aligned with a systematic investment process. This approach includes committing to a target asset allocation framework, deploying capital to the markets in a disciplined manner, rebalancing as appropriate, and having a solid cash management process in place.
Whether you’re looking to buy securities at a discount or avoid losses altogether, there’s rarely a right time to get into the markets. Nevertheless, we believe that staying committed to a disciplined investment process and using techniques to manage uncertainty during periods of heightened market volatility could help you increase the odds of achieving your lifestyle goals regardless of market conditions and keep you on track to mastering your financial independence journey.
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