A Time and a Place for Market Timing

by | Aug 19, 2013 | Building Wealth, Weekly Column

ManMarketChart“Keep your hands away from your investments and back away from the market reports.”

That pretty much sums up passive investing, the approach I have practiced for years. I’ve preached it for years, too, and did so in a recent column. The wisest way to build wealth is by investing in a variety of asset classes, setting target allocations in each asset class, and then taking your hands off except to periodically rebalance to the original target allocations.

For most of us, the best way to invest in an asset class is to give our funds to a mutual fund manager who will purchase the appropriate investments. Mutual fund managers have a choice of actively or passively managing the money you give them to invest.

Passive managers try to match market indexes, which are groups of companies representing a cross-section of a certain type of investment. The most popular index in the world is probably the S&P 500 index, which consists of the largest 500 companies in the United States. Another popular index is the Dow Jones Industrial Index which is made up of 30 companies. When we consider the US has almost 10,000 companies, we can quickly see that many indexes represent just a segment of the entire market.

Research indicates it is very hard to beat an index, especially with stocks, bonds, real estate investment trusts, and commodities. I prefer to keep about 80% of my investment portfolio in a broad variety of passively managed investments in these asset classes.

Where do I put the other 20%? In mutual funds with active managers who try to earn returns similar to stocks and bonds and that are not correlated to either.

This may seem to make me a hypocrite. I’ve been saying for years not to be a market timer, and now here I am suggesting you do just the opposite with a portion of your portfolio. Not hypocrisy at all. What I’ve preached for many years is that neither you nor I have any business timing investments. That doesn’t mean no one should ever do it.

It can be wise to put a small portion of our portfolios into various investment strategies with active managers. The key is to find managers who have a disciplined approach that eliminates emotion and who have long-term track records of success. These strategies include managers who attempt to time markets by shorting stocks they think will decline in value and buying stocks they think will rise. It also includes one investment strategy, managed futures, that I call “timing on steroids.”

My reason for including some actively managed funds is to have part of my investment portfolio that is not correlated to stocks. I want these investments to have a positive return over a long period, but also to move in opposition to other major asset classes, especially stocks. So when stocks are up, I am not fazed if my managed futures are down. And when stocks are down, I am thankful when my managed futures are up. If both asset classes earn 6 to 9% over a long period of time, I’m happy.

So I stand by my commitment to passive investing. It’s based on research suggesting that timing the markets is a loser’s game.

Yet part of passive investing is having a fully diversified portfolio. This includes having a small portion—20% or less—in mutual funds with disciplined, successful active managers. My job is to research and find those managers. Then it’s okay to let them time their hearts out. I just make sure I don’t try to time the timers.

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